Michael Phelps is no stranger to the Olympics. But the five-time Olympian will carry a newfound responsibility to the upcoming games in Rio. For the first time in Phelps’ career, members of the 47-member 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim Team voted him as one of its six team captains Tuesday at the team’s training center in San Antonio.
Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, will be joined by teammates Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin as the other captains of the men’s team .Ervin won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics before retiring for a decade. He came back to compete on the 2012 and 2016 teams. Adrian has made two prior Olympic appearances, in Beijing and London, and won 2012 Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle.
On the women’s side, three-time Olympians Elizabeth Beisel and Allison Schmitt were named team captains alongside Cammile Adams, a two-time Olympian. Beisel and Schmitt made their Olympic debuts as teenagers in Beijing, while Adams is back for her second appearance in Rio.
All six are first-time U.S. Olympic team captains and have qualified for a jaw-dropping 19 Olympics appearances combined. They were voted into their positions on Monday night during a training camp in San Antonio, Texas.
“It’s a fantastic group, with the next generation of swimmers being led by some very experienced veterans,” coach Mike Bottom says.
The most decorated Olympian in history, Phelps, 31, has never been named captain. It was hard to imagine him as a role model after years of hard partying that led to a second drunk-driving arrest in 2014. But Phelps has made a remarkable personal U-turn since entering rehab for substance abuse in 2014.
Phelps’ sister Hilary says that his therapy in rehab may have made Phelps more approachable to teammates. “There was always a little bit of a bubble around him, that was there for a long time. He’s let people know, ‘I’ve made mistakes, like everyone else. I’m human.’ And people respond to that.”
Phelps is the all-time Olympic leader, with 22 medals. He has earned 18 gold medals, twice as many as the second-highest gold winners. He claimed the 2012 Olympics would be his last, and then, under criticism for a lackluster performance in London and public displays of substance abuse, reversed himself. USA Swimming suspended Phelps and forced him to withdraw from the 2015 world championships after he was arrested for drunk driving in Baltimore in September 2014. He sought treatment in Arizona less than a week after his arrest.
“I think (in rehab) Michael learned that he had a good person inside of him, and that he was more than just a swimmer,” Hilary says. “He is so much more invested in life.”
It helps, she adds, that he became a father in May, when his fiancee Nicole Johnson gave birth to their son, Boomer.
“Michael’s story of sobriety and having a child has been great,” says USA Swimming coach David Marsh. “It’s the right time for him to show leadership.”
Phelps will attempt to win his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in four events, including 100-meter butterfly, 200 medley, 4×200 freestyle and the 4×100 medley. He qualified for each of the individual events, and it’s safe to assume his spot is secure for the relay competitions.