Michael Phelps is the unanimous choice for anyone that follows the sport of swimming as the greatest swimmer of all-time - there is hardly an argument favoring anyone else. His longevity in the sport from being a World champion at 16 to winning individual Olympic gold at 31 have made him the stuff of legends, and it was in Fukuoka in 2001 when the star was born.

On March 30, 2001, Phelps became the youngest male to set a world record in swimming at 15-years-old, where he swam a 1:54.92 to take Tom Malchow’s 1:55.18 off the books. There was a new butterfly king, err prince, on the block and his name was Michael Phelps. Malchow was the reigning Olympic champion from Sydney, having upgraded his silver from the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Malchow had been the king of the block, but Phelps had come on the scene as a 15-year-old the year prior to finish fifth in the Sydney final. Six months later, Phelps had gone faster than any man had before.

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Leading into the Fukuoka 2001 World Championships in July, Phelps and Malchow were the two to beat - could the teenager really take down the Olympic champion when the lights are on? Would the master hold off the apprentice for one more year? It was clear that Phelps was on his way to becoming something special - his rise was reminiscent of the rise of Australia’s Ian Thorpe, who was a World champion himself in 1998 at just 15, and set his first world record at 16 in 1999. The 2001 Worlds was all about “The Thorpedo” as he won six gold medals and set four world records at age 18. Many at the time had seen similarities in both Thorpe and Phelps’s success at a young age.

The Lead-up

Image Source: Tom Malchow in peak form at the U.S. Olympic Trials (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Malchow was still considered by many journalists to be the man to beat in Fukuoka, despite Phelps breaking the world record in March. Malchow and France’s Franck Esposito turned in identical times in the semi-finals at 1:55.03, with Phelps in third at 1:56.41, ahead of defending champion Denys Sylantyev (1:56.51) of the Ukraine in fourth and reigning Olympic bronze medalist Justin Norris (1:56.98) of Australia in sixth. It was perhaps the fastest field ever assembled up until that point, and many thought it would take a world record to be able to stand at the top of the podium.

Malchow was pitted as the pre-race favorite according to Swimming World Magazine to hold off the teenage up-start Phelps for at least one more year, while Esposito, at 30-years-old, would return to the podium after a disappointing eighth place performance in Sydney.

Even though Phelps was the world record holder, it almost seemed as if the swimming universe wasn’t ready to take him seriously as the best man in the world yet.

The Race

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Esposito had gotten off to a quick start on the first 25. The Frenchman was the sentimental favorite, having first won bronze in the event at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. He had won three European titles up to that point, but hadn’t won on the global stage, only managing a silver in the Perth 1998 World Championships. He had been in many finals, but didn’t have as many medals to show for it.

The pace was quick, and at the first turn, Phelps, Esposito and Malchow were all under world record pace. Esposito and Malchow were sitting high in the water, as their arm-dominant strokes with only one kick kept them in touch with Phelps, whose timing and rhythm kept the rest of the world at his hips. He turned at the 100 at 54.81 ahead of Malchow by nearly a half second, and ahead of his own world record by eight tenths.

Malchow had tried to make a move on the third 50, pulling within three-tenths of Phelps, dragging Esposito with him as well.

But thus began the Phelps 200m butterfly renaissance on the final turn.

Against the best in the world, Phelps showed tremendous maturity in the final 50m. He didn’t swim like the timid teenager he had been in Sydney a year prior, forgetting to tie his suit in the heats and at one point forgetting his credential to get into the facility. He powered off the third turn, and although Malchow was going with him stroke for stroke, Phelps re-broke his own world record with a 1:54.58.

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The first of 15 individual gold medals at the World Championships for Michael Phelps.

Malchow won the silver at 1:55.28 while Russia’s Anatoli Poliakov won the bronze at 1:55.68. Esposito narrowly missed out again with a fourth place finish at 1:55.71 ahead of Japan’s Takashi Yamamoto (1:55.84) in front of the Fukuoka crowd in fifth.

The Aftermath

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Malchow had gone over to congratulate Phelps, thrusting his fist in the air as a symbolic ‘passing of the torch’ - not only for the world record but for the World title as well. Phelps and Malchow would share the podium once again at the 2003 Worlds in Barcelona with Malchow winning the bronze.

With the exception of 2005, Phelps went on to win every World title after Fukuoka until 2013 when Chad Le Clos took the first Phelps-less 200m butterfly final in his first retirement. The Fukuoka swim started a decade of dominance for the American that continued all the way up to his retirement in 2016.

World Aquatics wrote this at the time on July 24, 2001:

For Phelps there is only one goal: “To get faster and faster, keep improving, that's my main goal. I was disappointed in my semi-finals so I wanted to see if I could hang on if I took it out real hard. I did.”

Phelps would go on to break the 200m butterfly world record six more times, taking it down to a 1:51.51 in 2009 which stood until 2019 when Hungary’s Kristof Milak took it off of Phelps’s hands. Flash forward to 2023 as Milak is chasing the 1:50 barrier in the same city where Phelps first broke the record and stood at the top of the podium for the first time.

“To get faster and faster, keep improving, that's my main goal. I was disappointed in my semi-finals so I wanted to see if I could hang on if I took it out real hard. I did.”
By Michael Phelps

Malchow in second, "I am not disappointed. The USA team needed our 1-2 finish. I made a contribution to the team and it gets us on track for next five days. Last night was my best ever and it gives me confidence that I can still do that at age 25."

Malchow finished eighth in the 200m butterfly in his third Olympics in Athens before retiring shortly after. Phelps won the four-lap butterfly race in Greece for his first of three Olympic golds in the event.

Since breaking his first world record in 2001, Phelps would go on to hold world records in five different events by 2007. By 2023, only one of those still stands - his 4:03.84 in the 400m individual medley from 2008, which is also in danger of falling by the Fukuoka Worlds in July.