On this day in 2004, American swimmer Michael Phelps wins his eighth medal of the 2004 Athens Olympics in spite of sitting out his eighth scheduled event, the final of the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Phelps left Athens with six gold and two bronze medals. His eight total medals tied him with Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for the most medals ever won by a competitor at a single Olympic Games.
Michael Phelps entered the 2004 Olympics intent on breaking American swimming phenomenon Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics. He got off to a fast start, setting a world record in his first race, the 400-meter individual medley, and Olympic records with victories in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley. Phelps then settled for third place in the 200-meter freestyle and the 4 x 100-meter freestyle medley, and entered the final day of the swimming competition with five gold and two bronze medals. Though this put him short of Spitz’s record seven golds, he had already tied Spitz’s record of four individual golds in one Olympics.
Phelps sat out the finals of the 4 x 100-meter medley so that his teammate Ian Crocker could leave Athens with a gold medal. The veteran U.S swimmer Crocker had failed to qualify in the 100-meter freestyle and had swum poorly in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle final in which the U.S. won the bronze. Crocker then lost the 100-meter butterfly by .04 seconds to Phelps, who qualified for the 4 x 100 medley team with his win. Phelps swam the butterfly leg of the race in the preliminaries, but then ceded his spot in the final to Crocker.
Aaron Piersol, the first of the U.S. relay team into the water, swam an impressive 53.45-second backstroke leg. Next up was Brendan Hansen in the breaststroke, and then Crocker, who rewarded Phelps’ faith in him by swimming the second-fastest butterfly leg in relay history. A strong finish in the freestyle leg by Jason Lezak gave the U.S. the gold and a world record time of 3:30.68, which knocked a full three seconds off the former mark.
Since then, Phelps has become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. In Beijing in 2008, he broke Spitz’s record by winning eight gold medals. After his performance in London in 2012, he now has 22 medals, including 18 gold medals.