Michael Phelps: Genetic or Acquired?

By WoS Student

“The most decorated Olympian” they all say, Michael Phelps is easily one of the world’s greatest swimmers to ever live. Having 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them being gold, he is easily known for his swimming prowess. Despite these major accomplishments, many people question how he has made it this far. People believe genetics played a key role in his success, while others believe it was it was pure talent, and actual training and exercise. Other people believe it was a combination of both. Through extensive research, I will decide which is the true root of Phelps’ triumphs.

It is important that I explain the career of Michael Phelps to know the basis of the debate. Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity  Disorder), a genetic condition. Although ADHD is truly genetic, it does not affect his performance. Other genetic conditions, on the other hand, is what people believe make him better.

Nevertheless, Phelps found himself dedicated to swimming and competing in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia at the age of 15. He was one of the youngest competitors in the 200-meter butterfly event. Although only making fifth place, Phelps was very elated of his achievements. “It was great, I was fifth, that’s a pretty big accomplishment. But I didn’t want it. I wanted more. I was within half a second of medaling – it was literally, if I would have taken it out a little bit faster, maybe I would have had a chance.” In 2001, still 15, Phelps competed at the World Championship Trials and broke a world record in the 200- meter butterfly. He also broke the butterfly record at the World Championships in Fukoka, Japan. In 2004, Phelps participated in the Athens Olympics and won 6 gold medals and two bronze medals. In the 200m freestyle, Phelps competed against Ian Thorpe, Phelp’s swimming inspiration, and placed third in that race. Ian Thorpe placed two spots above him in first, followed by Pieter van den Hoogenband. However, at that point of his career, Phelps was a force to be reckoned with in the swimming industry.

In pursuit of achieving a new record, Phelps wanted to win 8 gold medals in one Olympics. Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Games, had the record for most first place medals. To achieve this, Phelps competed in eight events at the World Championship in 2007 as practice for the actual Olympics the following year. Phelps was able to win seven events at the World Championships. The 4×100 medley relay team was disqualified unfortunately, but Michael was determined to win all eight. Although being doubted by Mark Spitz and Ian Thorpe, his own hero, Phelps proved them wrong and won all eight swimming events. The crowd stood in awe as Phelps won event after event. With fourteen gold medals under his belt, Phelps was now the most decorated Olympian ever. For the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Phelps acquired nine gold medals and three silver medals, bringing his accumulated total to 23 gold medals, 3 silver medals, and 2 bronze medals.

There is still haziness when it comes to the root of Phelp’s success. It is argued that it is purely acquired and through rigorous training. According to Muscleprodigy.com, during the peak of his career (2008-2012), Phelps worked on body weight exercises like push-ups rather than weight exercises to improve muscle strength and endurance. Phelps thinks that having all that muscle will slow him down in the water if he has more weight on him. He lifts weights 3 days a week and train 5-6 hours a day every single day. To have all this energy to sustain this exercise, he eats 12,000 calories a day because of his fast metabolism. Phelps ate foods that were full of carbohydrates and he would work the carbs off. The reason why a myriad of people believes his ability is acquired is because of his extreme program. Many people believe that a program that intense would surely help a swimmer become amazing. Training for a big portion of the day during the peak of your career would surely help make you go faster, have endurance, and like Phelps, obtain 23 gold medals.

Another view of Phelps is that his genetics have given him advantages over other swimmers, making him such a great swimmer. Scientific American, during the peak of the career, elaborates on a couple of factors that give Phelps an edge in swimming. Phelps in 2008 was 6 ft 4 in, and his wingspan was only a couple inches more at 6 ft 8 in. That is a huge wingspan for anyone and is really long in length. It was his incredible reach that made him win against Serbia’s Milo Cavic by one-hundredth of a second in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Olympics. Experts believe that just this bit of extra height can make Phelps win a race over another. This height leads into the main genetic condition that makes people think is the cause of Phelps’ success. It is also rumored that Phelps has a rare hereditary disorder called Marfan Syndrome. Symptoms consist of long arms and legs, tall and slender build, and curved spine. It is known these things give swimmers advantages in the water and it is also known that Phelps has these things. People believe Michael Phelps has this disorder and it helps him in swimming. Although, symptoms like flat feet and heart murmurs are things Phelps also has which can be a disadvantage to his swimming. Maybe some symptoms are good for swimming, but his heart murmurs can greatly affect his future. To add to this, Phelp’s ankles can bend more than an average swimmer, making his feet like a flipper. Yet again, other swimmers can have this flexibility, so this is not really a huge advantage.

Through the debate of the cause of Michael Phelps’ swimming prowess, I believe it is a mixture of both skill and genetics. An Olympic athlete needs training to stay in shape and increase the five components of fitness: muscle strength, muscle endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition. Genetics just cannot give someone good endurance, this comes with training. However, his height, controlled by genetics, do allow him to acquire slight advantages in the water, proving genetics can make Phelps acquire clutch wins. Overall, no one can deny the legend that Michael Phelps is. He has taught us all that hard work and perseverance can make anyone can be successful in life. Phelps claim that he has retired after the 2016 Rio Olympics, but many people believe the complete opposite and that he is still swimming. We can all agree on one thing: his legacy lives on.

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