The Big Twenty

The Big Twenty: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky become the greatest Olympic swimmers of all time

The Big Twenty

The crowd roared at Nationals Park on a summer night in 2008.

They were not cheering the Nationals, though. There wasn’t much of that for baseball fans in Washington to do that first season in the new ballpark 12 years ago. Instead, in the middle of a game, thousands of heads were turned toward televisions in the bar of the Red Porch restaurant in centerfield. Michael Phelps was swimming and no one wanted to miss it.

The Maryland native is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 28 medals – 23 of those gold and 13 of them in individual events. He is retired now, but swam in every Summer Olympics this century dating to the 2000 Games in Sydney when he was just 15.

His races became must-see television – even if you were out at another game. The outfield crowd at Nationals Park that night roared when Phelps won one of his eight gold medals in the Beijing Games in 2008.

In 2016 they briefly stopped a preseason football game at M&T Bank Stadium between the Ravens and the Carolina Panthers to watch Phelps, their native son, win gold in Rio in the 200-meter individual medley. The crowd broke out into the “Seven Nation Army” chant and, of course, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Swimming took on an outsized role in the Baltimore-Washington sports scene over the past 20 years. While Phelps was becoming the most decorated athlete in any sport on the planet, Bethesda native Katie Ledecky became the most dominant swimmer of her generation.

At age 15, Ledecky won gold in the 800-meter freestyle race at the London Games. She dominated at world championship meets in the ensuing years before winning four more gold medals – setting two world records - at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. No female swimmer has more world championship medals than Ledecky’s 15. She was arguably the most dominant woman in any sport the entire decade.


Driving out Wisconsin Avenue in that summer of 2012, Ledecky’s greatness and precocious age were on display. In the days before her gold-medal swim in London, the marquee at Stone Ridge High, Ledecky’s high school where she was a rising sophomore, shouted its support for her to the thousands of commuters driving past every day.

Ledecky would go on to swim at Stanford and have her wonderful success in Rio. Preparations are well underway for her return to the Olympics this summer in Tokyo. Her fans back home will be watching again.