Michael Phelps was just 17 when he and a few of his buddies caught a glimpse of basketball star Juan Dixon at the local mall. This was back when Dixon was still a college player at the University of Maryland, during his pre-NBA days, but Phelps and his friends caught themselves gawking.
When asked if Dixon recognized him, Phelps laughed.
“Nooooo,” Phelps said at the time, “not at all. I think the only person who recognizes me at the mall is this one woman at the GNC store. She's always asking me, ‘You're the swimmer, right?’”
There’s a pretty good chance that Dixon has heard of this swimmer by now. And the woman at the GNC store probably knows the name Michael Phelps.
After all, he is now the most decorated Olympian, having won 22 medals, 18 gold, and has become a household name around the globe.
Four years ago, he bested Mark Spitz’s seemingly unbreakable record of seven Olympic golds in one Games by claiming eight in Beijing. He could have swum into the sunset after those Games, but instead rebounded for London, where he collected four more gold medals and two silvers. The medals Phelps won in London pushed him past Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most medals in the Olympic history book. Latynina medaled in 18 of the 19 Olympic events in which she competed between 1956 and 1964.
Phelps has garnered more Olympic medals than entire countries, among them India, Portugal and Chile.
"I’d put my mind on doing something that nobody had ever done before,” Phelps said in London after surpassing Latynina for the Olympic medal record. “And there was nothing that was going to stand in my way of being the first Michael Phelps. That’s what I said all along, and this has been an amazing ride.”
The list of accolades for Phelps, now 27, is long and filled with Olympic triumphs and world records. He has been treated to parades, been honored by U.S. presidents and even toasted by his hometown fans in Baltimore recently while carried on a boat. He was celebrated by the Baltimore Ravens during a “Monday Night Football” game.
Following his final Olympic swim in London in the medley relay, FINA president Julio Maglione presented Phelps with a FINA lifetime achievement award inscribed with these words: “To Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympic athlete of all time. From FINA. August 4 2012. London, Great Britain.”
And although he has announced his retirement plans and said he will not be competing four years from now in Rio de Janeiro, the awards and honors continue to be bestowed upon him.
This week, the U.S. Olympic Committee added another one by naming Phelps its Olympic SportsMan of the Year, a distinction he had earned twice before in his career, back in 2004 and in 2008. This honor, although earmarked for the 2012 year, is truly a final punctuation mark on his career as a whole.
In addition to his medal tally in London, Phelps also earned the 2011-12 USA Swimming Grand Prix Series title and collected seven medals at the 2011 FINA World Championship.
Technically, the USOC honor is not including Phelps’s 33 world championship medals or his 36 world records or the fact that London marked his fourth trip to the Olympic Games, but those achievements cannot be overlooked — especially since Phelps has announced before competing in London that he planned to retire from competitive swimming.
The USOC named track and field star Allyson Felix its Olympic SportsWoman of the Year, the U.S. women’s eight rowing team as the Olympic Team of the Year, swimmer Jessica Long the Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year, wheelchair track and field racer Raymond Martin the Paralympic SportsMan of the Year and the U.S. men’s quad doubles tennis team was designated Paralympic Team of the Year.
The six awards will be presented at a celebratory dinner during the 2012 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly held Sept. 20-21 at the Antlers Hilton Hotel in Colorado Springs.
Although Phelps announced last month that he was trading in his Speedo for a golf club — at least while he is part of the reality TV show “The Haney Project” — his passion, of course, is in the pool.
Ever since he turned professional at 15, he has always preached that he wanted to grow the sport — and he has. Speedo provided Phelps a $1 million for breaking Mark Spitz’s record in 2008 and Phelps, in turn, used that money to create the Michael Phelps Foundation. In 2009, Phelps and longtime coach Bob Bowman created the Michael Phelps Swim School to introduce children to swimming in his hometown of Baltimore. Phelps also has been involved with Swim Across America, a program that raises money and awareness for cancer research at various swimming-related events around the country. He has served as an honorary starter for the Baltimore Swim Across America in the past.
Just this week, Phelps was named the 2012 Champion of Youth at a breakfast on Capitol Hill by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for his commitment to growing the sport of swimming for children. His foundation developed a program called “im” (named after swimming’s individual medley) and more than 4,000 children have participated in it through Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The program is running in 28 clubs in 22 states.
Phelps always envisioned doing for swimming what Michael Jordan did for basketball. Some of his goals were large, such as eclipsing Spitz’s record, but he knew in a niche sport such as swimming, he would have to go big. Other goals were a touch smaller: he wanted to see swimming on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”. He achieved them all.
After his final race in London, the medley relay, he thanked Bowman for helping him achieve those goals.
“I said to Bob in the warm-down pool that I looked up to Michael Jordan, what he did in his career and I have been able to become the best swimmer of all time,” Phelps said. “We got here together and I thanked him.”
Now he can spend a little time appreciating the view from above.
“I’ve been able to accomplish every goal I’ve ever wanted to,” Phelps said after winning a gold medal in the medley relay in London in what would be the final race of his career. “I think at that point in your career it’s just time to move on.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.