Characteristics of a Champion [2] – Michael Phelps

For Michael Phelps whose goal was that swimming would be as big as the big four (i.e. hockey, baseball, basketball, football), his goal would be pointless if his achievements were beyond the imagination of those who watched him win eight gold medals in Beijing.  For swimming to gain in popularity, the next generation of athletes must feel inspired that opportunity exists for them too, and that pursuing it is worthy.

This post has been written out of respect for Michael Phelps’ goal and aims to further encourage those he inspired.  This post was written to demonstrate that this champion trained his way to his achievements, not as often suggested that his success is the result of luck, winning the genetic lottery, ‘born/natural talent’ or for any other reason that detracts from his relentless pursuit of a dream, his unwavering commitment, tireless dedication, perseverance, and tenacity.  These are all attributes available to anyone hungry enough to dedicate themselves to a dream, willing to invest in the training, to those who commit fully to discovering their potential.


If a size 14 foot, if a wing span wider than one’s height, if a specific torso:leg length ratio is critical to success, then we should be able to do two things: (a) predict who will win every event based solely on such measures, and (b) assess age group athletes with the goal of sorting them Gattacaso as to direct them to the sport which suits their frame.  The result should be a steady stream of superior sport specific athletes and predictable champions (i.e. the concept of the movie Gattaca).

If this was possible, then in 1988 a 17 year old 5’2″ swimmer, who stood against women who towered over her by 6 to 8″, who outweighed her 99 lbs frame by an equivalent amount should never have won Olympic gold, nor set World Records which withstood years of international competition.  Along this line of thinking, Janet Evans should never have been allowed to become a swimmer because she wasn’t the right size.

If a size 14 foot is the equivalent of a flipper, then Ian Thorpe’s size 17 feet are whale fins in comparison.  Michael Phelps with size 14 feet should have quit before he started.  Why bother training to be a swimmer if foot size is indicative of ability, of potential, of success?

NO athlete, NO coach, NO parent should ever evaluate potential based on physical attributes.

There is no gene for the human spirit, from the movie Gattaca

Rajat Mittal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has studied swimmers – including Phelps – at his computational fluid dynamics lab. In his studies on stroke technique, kick strength, shape, and size, he noticed two attributes of Phelps that made him stand out in comparison to other top athletes: his flexibility, and his ability to hold his breathe.


Michael Phelps describes his flexibility as ‘double jointed’, he can point his feet like a ballerina and can retract his shoulder blades, extend his elbows and bend his wrists more than ‘normal’. If there is any attribute which could be deemed ‘talent’ then perhaps it is flexibility.  The ability to place one’s body into positions that competitors cannot, provides unimagineable advantages which rarely can be overcome by force.  But flexibility – like all attributes – is a skill, and as a skill, it can be trained, developed, improved, and honed to a level of excellence.

Irina TchachinaAttend the training session of a gymnastics team, a dance troupe, or at a martial art dojo and you will come to appreciate that flexibility is pivotal to these forms of physical performance. As such, flexibility is not treated as something you have or do not have, it is trained, daily, and at times for hour after hour.

It can be argued that Phelps was blessed with a level of flexibility that was greater than average, but flexibility isn’t static.  If it isn’t trained, practiced, incorporated into daily workouts, then it will diminish (like anything else… if you don’t use it or practice it then you lose the ease and sharpness which comes with daily training).   If top athletes stretch routinely, then flexibility cannot be deemed ‘born talent’ which simply awaits use in competition, it is indeed a skill. If any athlete wants to exceed the records establish by Phelps, then there is one thing that surely must be done… stretch more than Phelps does, explore a range of motion that Phelps has not, and do it daily.

Able to Hold A Breathe

A skill which is likely not even considered a skill, and rarely considered predictive of athletic potential is breathe control: the ability to modify, adjust, and utilize one’s breathing pattern, rate, and volume, leveraging it to amplify the range of technique and/or as a source of power.

Ask an age group or masters athlete if they have considered if there is anything to breathing beyond inhaling & exhaling and most will reply that they have not thought about it.  The only occasion when breathing becomes relevant is when they are short of it at the end of an effort.

Breathing is critical to all sports.  Olympic weight lifting relies on a lift to be synchronized to breathing to leverage the stability provided to the upper extremities thru the thorax when at capacity at the peak of inhalation (i.e. to initiate the lift), then using the elastic properties of the rib cage, the weight is propelled overhead.  Sprinters use breathing in a manner not dissimilar from weight lifters.  Distance athletes regulate breathing to titrate carbon dioxide levels maintaining a physiological state to maximize endurance, while at the same time reserving capacity to deliver instantaneous bursts of speed and strength in response to attacks and surges from competitors, or as a component of their competition strategy to test or escape the lead pack.

Chasing_MavericksIf the desire to achieve a dream exists, then learning how to
breathe effectively becomes a teachable and learnable skill. The docu-drama titled “Chasing Mavericks” on the life of American soul-surfer Jay Moriarity whose desire to surf the largest waves off the coast of California led him to train to hold his breathe for 4mins: the length of time a wave can hold you under if you fall off your board. His mentor – played by Gerard Butler – refuses to allow Jay to attempt riding any ‘Maverick’ wave until he gains what appears to be a simple skill on the surface.  The skill turns out to be a formidable challenge to develop, but it is one which ends up saving his life.


Coach Bob Bowman realized that Michael’s uncontrolled energy – as a teen – could either be harnessed, or it could be what unravels Michael, destroying both athlete and dream. Bowman involved Michael’s mom, asking her to read nightly to Michael passages on relaxation, meditation, focus, and had Michael practice techniques which allowed him to learn to engage his energy when needed, sit on it through times of waiting, or allow it to dissipate when not needed. A predisposition to peace, focus, and steadiness was unnatural to Michael, as he was prone to throwing temper tantrums.  It was this training that allowed Michael to learn how to minimize, and eventually eliminate his distract-ability, to gain the skill of becoming grounded, to centre himself, to fine tuning concentration to the cold fixed gaze we consistently see from him in marshaling areas prior to events at competitions. Michael’s training has led to his ability to move from an ‘off’ to ‘on’ state at will, preventing energy – be it physical, dreamstime_s_32634967mental, or emotional energy – from being wasted, while ensuring that when called upon, it is unleashed, with the specific intent of delivering the highest quality performance in training and when competing, time and again. Michael’s focus is the outcome of the love, the gentleness, and the discipline that was shown to him, and taught by his supportive coach and family.

Born/Natural Talent

Excerpt from Breaking Muscle article titled: “The People You Think Are Naturally Good Are Actually Just Practicing“:

“A recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined 520 Spanish volleyball players between twelve to sixteen years old. Each player recorded his hours spent training per week and then took a pop quiz. The test measured his knowledge of volleyball: dimensions of the court, responsibilities of each position, characteristics of the ball, and correct reactions to different in-game scenarios.

The results showed that players who practiced four hours per week or more were cognitive Outliersexperts in their sport. Those who practiced more than seven hours per week had the most expertise.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and the 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell claims that great success results from a great time investment: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. So when you look at someone perform a task effortlessly and think, “Geez, that is so difficult for me and it’s always been so easy for him.” Wrong.  It really hasn’t always been easy for him. As a matter of fact, he had to screw it up before he could demonstrate the flawless execution that now makes your jaw drop.”

It takes years, not hours, not days, not weeks, not even months, but year after year of repetition, of consistent training performed with specific intent…

1997 Phelps 2009 Phelps

2015 Phelps

Michael Phelps on the starting blocks in 1997, at 11 years of age; in 2009 at FINA World Championships at the age of 24; in 2015 at the Phillips 66 Nationals at the age 30.  Notice anything about his pre-race routine?

Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps trained twice a day for 5 years without a day off.

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps had been training for over 10 years.  At an average of 5 hrs a day, 7 days a week, his training adds up to over 20,000 hrs.  The consistency speaks both to Phelps’ dedication, and to the genius of Coach Bob Bowman who trained Michael without excess, without over-training, peaking him perfectly competition after competition.

Champions are built, not born.

If Michael’s gold medals looked easy to onlookers, then perhaps it has something to do with a lifetime devoted to a dream… not due to ‘born talent’, not a lucky streak or break, not big feet, long arms and short legs.  Honestly, if you trained for that many hours wouldn’t you want your effort recognized, not rationalized as random, or written off due to natural endowment?

Peak performance is a process, not a point in time.  If it results in numerous Olympic medals or not is irrelevant.  The intimate experience which is a peak performance is reserved for the athlete alone as it is only they who know exactly what had to be overcome, what had to be learnt, practiced, memorized, sacrificed, and who they had to become in order to be able to explore their potential, and to find their moments.

If you are convinced that ability is endowed by birth right, then you remove yourself from the journey of pursuing your own potential as you entomb your dreams in a Fixed Mindset.  If on the other hand, you dare to dream, dare to believe that your potential is on the other side of learning a specific set of skills, which when mastered will open doors to you that lead to the ‘impossible’, then your courage to believe that which few permit will take you on an amazing journey leading to fulfillment unlike any other.


Michael’s primary goal was not Olympic gold, but increasing the interest and involvement in the sport of swimming; based on USA Swimming membership statistics he and the entire team representing the US succeeded.  After both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, annual USA Swimming membership rose double digits, a rate not seen since Barcelona in 1992.  A USA Swimming release to states: “the end of the four-year quad surrounding the 2012 Olympics also brings to a close the most successful quad for year-round athlete membership. There was a 19% increase in total number of athletes stretching from 2010-13. During the four-year span, USA Swimming gained more than 54,000 athletes.”  In 2015, membership in USA Swimming has surpassed a total of 400,000 athletes & non-athletes.  Congratulations Michael.