When you have a goal that’s important to you, nothing will stand in your way." With that pithy sentence, Michael Phelps, the world’s greatest Olympian, gave a glimpse of the insatiable drive that propelled him to 23 gold medals at sport’s biggest stage.
Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals from five Olympic Games (“but we don’t talk about the silvers and bronzes"), spoke at length about that journey at the 17th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.
“I was not chasing medals, I was chasing times," he said. “I knew the times of all my competitors, I knew my competitors better than they knew themselves. I knew the times I needed to get, so that no one could touch me."
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the stage of Phelps’s greatest triumph, where he won eight gold medals and broke fellow American Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds (at the 1972 Olympics), this obsession with time won him his hardest-fought gold. It was the 100m butterfly—Phelps’s signature stroke—and he knew that his closest competitor, Serbia’s Milorad Čavić, would get off to a faster start.
“But I also knew that if I could do 24.0 [seconds] in the first 50 [metres], I would win," Phelps said. “I did 24.1 (seconds), and I won the race by 1/100th of a second."
It was also Phelps’ seventh gold, tying him with Spitz. “The making of a champion is mostly mental," he added. “My losses—those silvers and bronzes that I don’t want to talk about—were the best thing that happened to me, because they really motivated me."
It was something that Bob Bowman, Phelps’s lifelong coach, knew well. Before that 200m butterfly at the 2008 Olympics, Čavić made headlines with his comments that it would be better for the sport of swimming if he beat Phelps. Bowman used that to motivate Phelps.
He revealed that going into the 2008 Olympics, legendary Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, who had won five golds at the 2000 Games, told him it would be “impossible to win eight medals".
“I had that highlighted in my locker," said Phelps. “In 2016, he (Thorpe) told me, ‘a person over 30 can’t win gold (at the Olympics)’. I had that in my locker, too."
At the 2016 Rio Games, his last, Phelps won five golds, again more than any other athlete. “So, I asked him (Thorpe) later about it," said Phelps. “And, he said ‘I know how your mind works, so you can thank me for it!’"
Yet this fierce competitiveness, this all-consuming drive, also took its toll. After the 2012 Olympics, Phelps began to experience bouts of depression. “I went through the scariest time in 2012. Just sitting in my room for 4-5 days, thinking, I don’t want to be alive."
In 2014, he returned to the pool after a two-year gap with a fresh perspective. “I felt like a high-school kid. I was enjoying it so much. To make a comeback, to win five medals (at the 2016 Games)..."