On Aug. 5, 2004, gasoline sold for an average of $1.89 a gallon. If you paid inside instead of at the pump, you may have noticed the latest Sports Illustrated on display. A preview of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, it featured a 19-year-old swimming phenom who was pursuing the outlandish goal of eight gold medals.
Twelve years later, gasoline prices have gone through a roller coaster ride that peaked at more than $4 in July 2008 before settling back to near the $2 mark. The performance of that swimming phenom has not wavered. Michael Phelps has lived up to the expectations that followed him to Athens. Now he will be back on the magazine rack, featured on his 12th SI cover out this week, proudly displaying the 23 gold medals — for the first time — that make him the greatest Olympian of all time.
Although other Olympians have been on more covers — Michael Jordan has graced a record 50, the bulk stemming from his NBA career — none can come close to the Olympic success Phelps has enjoyed, success so remarkable that even he admits he can’t wrap his head around what 28 Olympic medals mean. It’s a heavy question — literally; combined, the medal collection weighs more than 18 pounds. He recently laid them all out together for first time.
“No, I can’t process 28,” he told SI. “It’s too much.”
Sports Illustrated crunched some numbers to help put Phelps’ medal haul in perspective. For instance, of the five Olympians tied for second in career Olympic golds behind Phelps, two are Americans, Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz. Those two combined would have 18 Olympic golds — still five shy of Phelps’ total. If he had been his own nation at the last four Olympic Games, Phelps would rank 13th in gold medals, just two behind the 25 won by the Netherlands. He contributed 14 percent of Team USA’s gold medals during the span.
Retired at last, his wife Nicole told SI she could see him returning to competition in eight years (potentially in Los Angeles) for one reason: their son.
“I see that being the only thing that could bring him back — to swim for Boomer,” she said.
Here’s a look at Phelps’ Sports Illustrated covers over the past 12 years:
- Cover 1, Aug. 5, 2004 – Goggled, capped and crouching on a starting block, at age 19 Phelps is the cover boy of the Olympic preview.
- Cover 2, Aug. 23, 2004 – Phelps is shown celebrating one of his victories in Athens, where he garnered six golds and a pair of bronzes. The cover poses a question: How many records can Michael Phelps break?
- Cover 3, Feb. 3, 2005 – As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Phelps is featured in an analysis of his potential impact at his first NCAA championship.
- Cover 4, July 28, 2008 – Gracing a second consecutive Olympic preview, Phelps continued his quest for eight golds in a single Olympic Games.
- Cover 5, Aug. 18, 2008 – Dubbed “King of the Pool” by SI, Phelps is featured swimming in a butterfly event, three golds into his history-making Games.
- Cover 6, Aug. 25, 2008 – Mission accomplished, Phelps displayed his eight gold medals in an SI exclusive image.
- Cover 7, Dec. 8, 2008 – Named the SI Sportsman of the Year, Phelps appears in a black suit and tie, his white dress shirt soaking wet.
- Cover 8, Dec. 31, 2012 – After a four-year hiatus, Phelps is back on the cover, his performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games named SI’s 2012 Moment of the Year in voting conducted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
- Cover 9, Nov. 5, 2015 – A memorable issue for most sports fans, a bearded Phelps details his personal comeback journey from a dark place in his life, including his time in rehab.
- Cover 10, July 25, 2016 – Front and center, Phelps is one of seven Olympians featured on the cover of the Rio 2016 preview.
- Cover 11, Aug. 22, 2016 – Wearing his five Rio medals, Phelps shares cover space with Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles in a review of Team USA’s success in Rio.
- Cover 12, Dec. 20, 2016 – For the first time, Phelps poses with all 23 gold medals.