Michael Phelps won one last gold medal in the 4×100-meter medley relay and went out on top on Saturday night in Rio. He’s won 28 Olympic medals overall. Phelps has won so many more medals than any other Olympian that it’s almost not interesting or fair to compare him to other athletes.
So NPR’s Greg Myre asked “How does Phelps’ career medal total stack up against all the countries that have competed in the Summer and Winter Olympics since the dawn of the modern games in 1896?” He found the “Republic of Phelps” would stand proudly in 38th place for most gold medals won by a country, all-time, Summer and Winter Games combined!
Yet Myre notes that even this ranking sells Phelps short because four of the countries ahead of him are Germany, which over time has competed as Germany, West Germany, East Germany and the Unified German Team. Russia, the Soviet Union and the 1992 Unified Team (made up of the 15 former Soviet republics) account for three more countries ahead of Phelps. If measured against the 205 countries now in Rio, Myre says the Republic of Phelps has more gold medals than all but 32 of them.
More specifically, he’s ahead of Egypt, India, Argentina and Mexico. He’s tied with South Africa. And he’s just one gold medal behind host Brazil, a nation of more than 200 million people. Wow.
Here are some additional numbers:
- 0: The number of medals Phelps won in his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000 at age 15.
- 31: Phelps’ current age. That made him the oldest swimmer to ever win an individual medal on Thursday night. But that milestone was surpassed the next night when fellow American, Anthony Irvin, age 35, won the 50-meter freestyle.
- 35: Phelps’ age when the Tokyo Games come around in 2020. However, he insists this retirement is final.
Summing up Phelps’ career, Phelps’s longtime coach and U.S. men’s Olympic coach Bob Bowman said, “People have no idea how difficult it is to win one Olympic gold medal. Michael has done it so frequently that it’s really hard to put into perspective. But every one of those was hard.”
I’m interested in that unique combination of dedicated physical training and mental preparation that has enabled Phelps to be the best of all-time. While most will remember him on the medal stand in Rio, I will remember Phelps’ reaction when his swimming cap ripped seconds before he would dive into the pool as the anchor in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Teammate Ryan Lochte already was swimming the third leg when Phelps snapped his cap. He panicked for a millisecond, then fellow American Conor Dwyer, who had completed the first leg of the race, handed his cap to Phelps. The calm competitor took over after that. Swimming with Dwyer’s cap, Phelps easily maintained Team USA’s lead to win the gold. Phelps’ composure reminded me of the time in Beijing in 2000 that Phelps’ goggles cracked and filled with water mid-race. Without panicking, he simply counted the strokes to the wall, winning a gold medal in world record time in the process. He said he’d trained for just such a scenario in practice, so he didn’t panic in the race.
Phelps’ remarkable athletic achievements should not overshadow this important element to success. In a race, as in investing and life in general, sometimes things don’t go as we have planned. What separates winners from losers is how we deal with adversity and keep swimming forward to reach our goals.