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What Makes Phelps One of the Greatest Athletes of All Times?

Updated on August 16, 2016
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Melis is a leadership coach and is fascinated by human potential. She writes about what it takes to unlock true greatness in children.

Phelps made quite a comeback in Rio. While I write this article, he has qualified for his 5th Olympic Games and won his 21st gold medal. As the most decorated swimmer, he is certainly one of the greatest athletes of all times.

What makes Michael Phelps a winner? Here are 5 keys to his success:


1- His Perfect Swimmer's Build Helps Him Develop Strong Stroke Mechanics

  • He is quite tall at 6’4″ (193cm)
  • His arm span / wingspan is 6’7″ (200cm), 3 inches more than his height. His can work his arms are like paddles.
  • He has a long torso making him reach further with every stroke.
  • He has a short lower body enabling him to have lower resistance against water.
  • He has big palms and feet. And he is double-jointed. So his feet and hands work like propellers.

Other than that, he senses how water moves around him and calculates how much water he displaces while he is swimming. This ability gives him one of his competitive edges.


2- His Supportive Mom Is a Big Part of His Success

Debbie Phelps committed herself to help her children pursue their dreams. She did whatever was necessary to support her children succeed. She raised Phelps and his two sisters on a school teacher’s salary after her divorce and still nourished Phelps to become one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time.

  • She created the right environment when she turned their house into a swimming hot bed and helped all her 3 children excel.
  • She made sacrifices. She drove long distances to swim meets or took her kids to and from two-a-day practices even on weekends, public holidays, birthdays and vacations.
  • She taught Phelps about discipline and education.

My mom instilled in me at a very early age how important education was and how that came first. I couldn’t go play sports if we didn’t get everything else done – and I love sports. I’d go from the swimming pool to school to the swimming pool, come home and do my homework. I’m kind of a creature of habit. Once I get used to doing things, it’s like second nature. [1]

  • She held Phelps responsible. One day at a swim meet Phelps found out he had forgotten to pack his goggles. He asked his mom for help but she wasn’t going to do anything.

There was nothing I could do about it! He hasn’t forgotten his goggles since. [2]

  • She gave Phelps some control. She might be a strict parent, but she always included Phelps as part of the decision.

My communication with my mom was always awesome. I’m a very vocal person and I speak what I feel. No matter what it was, she’d say “Are you sure you want to do this?” She’d let me make up my own mind. [3]

3- He Has a Visionary and Experienced Coach Who Has Been Like a Father to Him

When Phelps and Bowman met, they were not particularly fond of each other. Bowman thought Phelps was an undisciplined kid with enormous energy. And Phelps thought Bowman was just a mean man, always blowing his whistle and yelling around the pool.

Bowman who is now coach of the U.S. Olympic swim team has been with Phelps every step of the way since he was 11 years old. He taught Phelps about swimming and life. The video below shows how much they have contributed to one another.

4- He Has a Burning Desire to Win and He Is Ultra Competitive

The burning desire starts with a dream. Phelps’ mom argues what keeps his son going is actually emotional. His mom says:

It’s not about the medals for Michael. It’s about the sense of accomplishment. [4]

Phelps always wanted to be “the best ever”. And he knew well enough if he wanted to be the best, you would have to do things other people weren’t willing to do. As his coach Bowman puts it:

Michael’s brain chemistry is such that he almost has to have that competitive environment. When he has it in his brain, it’s like unshakeable. . . . Part of it is a supreme confidence. Part of it is, he thinks he’s better than everyone else. And he is.[5]

5- His Dedication, Focus, and Hard Work Bring Him His Extensive Collection of Medals

  • His mental preparation and approach to adversity make all the difference. He visualizes about winning every day. He rehearses it mentally several times during each day. He comes up with scenarios as to what might happen during a race and visualizes how he would react in each of these scenarios so that he is ready when things get real. His mom recalls:

In high school, they’d send tapes from his international races. … He’d say, “Mom I want to have dinner in front of the TV and watch tapes.” We’d sit and he’d critique his races. He’d study the turns – “See, that’s where I lifted my head.” I couldn’t even see what he was talking about. Over and over. I’m like, “whoa.” [6]

  • His coach Bob Bowman taught him that the outcome was a result of how he would deal with any event that came his way and the only thing he could control was his reactions, not the outcome itself. Bowman would deliberately create adversity during practices in order to test Phelps. He’d change practice schedule at the last minute, not let him drink water during his breaks. He once even purposely stepped on Phelp’s goggles just before a race, forcing him to swim blind. Well, what Phelps learned through that adversity possibly won him a race during Beijing games when his goggles filled up with water. Phelps thinks:

Everybody is put on this earth with certain things they’re good at. Certain things they can do. Obviously, I’ve been able to handle pressure pretty well . . .Throughout my career I’ve risen to the occasion when obstacles come my way. That’s something, I guess, I was given.[7]

  • His training schedule is no joke. He used to get in the water at 6.30am to train 6 hours per day, 6 days per week. He also lifted weights and stretched for 2 hours, 3 days per week. Nowadays, he is “down” to 2-4 hours per day which is crazy enough for most of us to be in the water.
  • To support these intensive trainings, he has to take care of what he puts in his body. Before Beijing, he was known to eat 12.000 calories per day! Before Rio, he cut back some of those calories, but he is still on the “tons of calories diet”.

What an Inspiring Comeback!

It is very inspiring to see Phelps making a most successful comeback in Rio this year. He welcomed and accepted the challenges in his life, chose to learn from them and grow, renewed his goals and got back in the pool to do what he is good at; that is winning medals.










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