By Mike Gustafson | Wednesday, March 2, 2016
For years, the 400 IM was Michael Phelps’ perfect race. All four strokes. Part-sprint, part-distance. The 400 IM is an event that decides the sport’s best all-around swimmer — a fitting title for the sport’s greatest. After all, the “most grueling event” in swimming should be dominated by the sport’s best all-around swimmer in history. And, true to prediction, Phelps proved that 400 IM supremacy time and time again, culminating in an epic, jaw-dropping, sport (and legacy) re-defining Beijing 400 IM performance that has yet to be touched.
Then, something happened. Maybe Phelps got older. Maybe he didn’t want to embark down that grueling, 24-7 training required (and necessary) for a stellar, Olympic-gold caliber 400 IM. Maybe he lost the passion for the event. Or maybe he just never had the passion for the event at all. Either way, after vowing never to return to the event, then returning in 2012, Phelps failed to defend his Olympic gold medal.
Instead of dominating what should be, on paper, his best event (the 400 IM), Phelps has conquered a specific stroke, butterfly. Butterfly has been, over the years, Phelps’ most formidable and instinctual stroke: He qualified for his first Olympics in the 200m butterfly. Butterfly to Phelps is like scales would be to Mozart: It’s built into his circulatory system, into his brain wirings, or in the words of Matt Damon’s character in the movie Good Will Hunting, when it comes to butterfly, Phelps “can just play.” Ever since donning a swim suit, the Baltimore (Arizona?) Bullet has been nearly untouchable in the stroke, dominating the overall international scene since 2004 — well, that is, until that sport-shattering upset in the 200m butterfly in London.
So, in the interest of purely speculative and not-hardly-necessary debate, what is Phelps’ best event?
All signs, and goggles, point towards the butterfly sprint — the 100m butterfly. Over the years, Phelps has, by many accounts, not embarked on the training required to consistently dominate a 400 IM (and, I mean really — who could?). The 200m butterfly, an event Phelps hadn’t lost for several years internationally in lead-up to the London Games, an event many believed (including this lowly swim writer) was Phelps’ slam-dunk event, became an event just a few meters too long for the aging, less-than-passionate superstar.
But the butterfly sprint? Could this be the event people speak of Phelps 50 years into the future, sitting around pool decks saying, “Sure, but you should have seen him fly…” By the time Phelps once again hangs up his suit, (which, hopefully isn’t until two or five or sixty more years) we could remember Phelps not only for his overall gold medal supremacy, but also for simply changing the way we imagine the way one swimmer can dominate one stroke, and maybe, one singular event.
Much in the same way that NBA phenom Stephen Curry dominates the three-point shot, Michael Phelps dominates butterfly. Butterfly is Phelps’ dependable sidekick, that aspect of the sport that serves advantageous when it comes to other endeavors, like IMs and relays. Even after a foray into sprint freestyle and attempting solid races in the sprint backstroke, the sprint butterfly is to Phelps what that three-point shot is to Curry: A declaration that goes beyond training and talent. Sprint butterfly is, now more than ever, built into Phelps’ infrastructure. Though it seemed as though the 100m distance was, at times in the past, too short for the come-from-behind-Phelps, now that he’s reached an older, more body-mature age of 30+, the 100m butterfly now seems like Phelps’ stamp, his forte, his version of Curry’s dependable three-pointer. Even if Phelps were to stop training, gain thirty pounds and gain a gut, spend more time golfing than at the pool, and hop back in at the Olympic Trials, more than any other event, I’d still wager my life savings that he’d qualify in the 100m butterfly.
At this weekend’s Arena Pro Swim Series at Orlando, Phelps once again turns to that dependable sidekick, the 100m butterfly, for yet another victory. While yesteryear provided such formidable 100m butterfly opponents like Ian Crocker and Mike Cavic, this summer’s challenge is by the name Tom Shields, who aims his goggles at swimming’s next can’t-miss upset. Shields has the talent and drive to upset Phelps this summer. And yet, even with others’ talent and drive, Phelps usually finds a way.
This summer, much talk will be centered around Phelps’ “legacy.” Of course, Phelps’ place in swimming history is cemented as swimming’s greatest. Now, there are those details: Where was Phelps most dominant? What was his best, most dependable event?
Like any great, Phelps has re-defined himself as the march of time commands certain respect. We may be seeing a transition away from a 400 IM / 200 butterfly specialized into a sprinter. Or, we may not. We swim enthusiasts may be seeing the morphing of circa-2008 Phelps, Vintage Phelps, Beijing Phelps, a feat which would, given his history and age and past, be as impressive as any other of Phelps over the years.
LeBron James has redefined his game, in part to minimize the brutal grunt work on his body, but also to secure his future and round out his overall game. Similarly, Michael Phelps — scarily enough — may be becoming even more a well-round swimmer than we’ve ever seen him before. Yes, at age 30.
But the question lingers: What’s Michael Phelps’ best, most consistent event? You’ll see it this weekend. It will last approximately 50 seconds. Two lengths, back and forth, charging with both arms towards the wall.