Far Better Than the Best of the Best

This, sadly, will be the last hurrah for the Baltimore Bullet.

“It’s been a lot of great memories,” Michael Phelps said of his Olympic career in an interview with the TODAY Show -- and who can argue with a record 14 gold medals?

But mixed emotions came through when Phelps started talking about what will be his fourth and final Olympics.

“It’s kind of been weird ... but it’s also kind of emotional,” Phelps said.

After failing to medal in 2000 in Sydney, the Baltimore born and raised Phelps started making up for lost time. In 2004 he won six gold medals and two bronze -- at the age of 19. It was the second-best performance ever for an Olympian (behind Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in 1972). In the process he became only the second male swimmer (along with Spitz) to win more than two individual gold medals at a single Games -- he won four.

As good as that may sound, Phelps did better -- much, much better -- in 2008. He qualified for eight events and won eight gold medals, breaking nearly every record possible. His eight medals were the most ever in a single Olympics, his 14 total gold medals are the most ever, and he set seven world records in the eight events he swam (and an Olympic record in the eighth).

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After Phelps won the seventh gold and tied his record, Spitz called the performance “epic."

"It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time," Spitz told the Associated Press. "He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.”

That's high praise coming from the guy who had just seen his record tied (and shortly thereafter broken).

Phelps qualified in eight events in 2012, the same eight he won gold in four years prior. After 2008 he had stated that he would never do eight events again, so he scratched the 200-meter freestyle event.

After the Trials he said there was more work to do to get faster and that “[he] really didn’t feel that great at Trials. It’s all a matter of perspective if you’re the world’s best swimmer -- he had been the top qualifier in four of the eight events.

Phelps acknowledges that this will be his last Games, and that there is work to be done. He plans to take time to enjoy a far less rigorous schedule than four years ago, but told the TODAY Show that “I have a job to finish here, that’s why I’m here.”

The “job” American fans will be rooting for him to complete is to become the most decorated Olympian ever. His Olympic resume is covered with gold, and the record book is full of “Michael Phelps” entries. In the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, Phelps won gold in every single individual event he entered, save for one, and gold in every single relay event he entered, again, except for one.

Phelps may be only two medals behind Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina for the overall medal count record, but he has been far more dominant over a shorter period of time.

For the sake of this argument we don’t take into account the 2000 Olympics when Phelps didn’t win any medals -- prior to the start of his period of dominance.

  • Latynina’s period of dominance lasted for three Olympics (1956, 1960 and 1964), over the course of which she won 18 medals -- an average of six medals per games.
  • Phelps has won 16 medals in just two Games (2004 and 2008) -- an average of eight per games.

Phelps starts to look even more dominant when you take into account of the color of the medal.

  • In three Olympics, Latynina won nine gold medals (an average of three per Games). So far in two Games Phelps has won 14, an average of seven per Games.
  • Latynina’s most dominant Olympics was 1956 when she won four gold, one silver and one bronze medal for a total of six. In 2008 Phelps won eight GOLD medals.
  • Of her 18 overall medals, nine of Latynina’s are gold. Of Phelps 16 overall, 14 are gold (87.5 percent).
  • 2004 was Phelps "worst" Olympics (during his period of dominance) with six gold medals and two bronze. Latynina’s best Olympics were in 1956: six TOTAL medals, four of which were gold.

That’s just taking into account Phelps’ two dominant Games so far.

Phelps currently has 16 overall medals (14 gold) to Latynina’s 18 overall. Phelps is swimming in seven events in London.

All he needs are three medals of any sort to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, however, if he wins five gold medals Phelps will have more gold medals than any other Olympian has total medals of any sort.

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