How Michael Phelps' Body Was Made For Swimming, And Why He Could Slack Off And Still Win

By Staff Reporter on August 5, 2012 11:25 PM EDT

Michael Phelps
Phelps (Photo: Reuters)

In what may be his final competitive race, American swimmer Michael Phelps won the butterfly leg in the Americans' victorious 4-by-100 medley relay last Saturday at the London Olympics. The gold medal win--his fourth in these London games--only further cemented his status as the most decorated Olympian of all time. The 27 year old now has 22 career medals, 18 of them gold--more than twice the amount of any other Olympian in the event's century plus history.

It would be a great, not just for aspiring athletes, but for children around the world, if the story of Phelps was one of hard work. It would be inspirational if Phelps had simply worked harder than all his peers. 

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But that is not the case. Phelps doesn't work harder than his competitors. In fact, he slacks off at times.

Phelps and his peers have acknowledged this fact recently. Tyler Clary, a fellow American swimmer, made headlines earlier this year when he told a Californian newspaper that Phelps doesn't work as hard as he should, that he "isn't putting in the laps". The narrative surrounding Ryan Lochte--Phelp's main rival during these games--was one of extreme hard work: Lochte spent the past four years flipping tires and dragging chains to prepare for these 2012 games. Yet, when it came down to it, he was no match for Phelps, who himself admitted he didn't really try his hardest in the prelimary trials just a week ago.

So what genetic traits make Phelps such a gifted swimmer? 

He has the anthropometrics of the perfect swimmer. His body is perfect for swimming with both speed and endurance.

At 6 foot 4 inches, Phelps has the length in the pool over many of his peers. His wingspan of 6'7--unusually long for his height--gives him incredible pulling power in the water. His long, thin, and triangular shaped torso gives him an hydrodynamic edge. It's also unusally long for his height--he has a torso of a 6' 8 man--which further helps his reach. He has short legs for his height, which is another beneficial trait at swimming: his legs give him a stouter kick, with low drag. His hands and feet are unusally large, which gives him flipper-like abilities. 

And finally, he is double-jointed, which lets him whip his arms, legs, and feet with a greater range of motion than most human beings. 

Michael Phelps, to put simply, was born to swim. Other than growing fins and gills, there's nothing else his body would need to be a better swimmer. He is a winner of the genetic lottery.  

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