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Built to swim: Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in this summer's Olympic Games alone. The only swim-savvy feature Phelps seems to lack is gills!


With an Olympic gold-medal count that exceeds the tally for most countries (14), many people have crowned Michael Phelps the greatest athlete in Olympic history. In Beijing this summer, Phelps broke swimmer Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.

How did Phelps achieve this superhuman feat? There are a few factors. With a machine-like training regimen, Phelps's workouts would exhaust even the most dedicated gym buffs. Commentators also praise Phelps's impeccable stroke mechanics and technique. But the real reason Phelps has a leg up on his competitors? He happens to have some porpoise-like proportions!

"Phelps's body is slightly different than other athletes. The way his body is shaped boosts propulsion and minimizes drag," says Bowling Green State University's Stephen Langendorfer, a lifelong swimmer and kinesiologist, or scientist who studies human movement. Propulsion is the force that drives a swimmer through the water, and drag is a friction-like force that resists forward movement and slows down a swimmer.


While Phelps's proportions all fall within normal ranges, little variations can add up to big advantages in the pool. "At the level Phelps is competing, a hundredth of a second can mean the difference [between getting] a gold medal or not," says Langendorfer.

Read on to see Phelps is perfectly built for swimming--and for breaking world records.


A LIFE Aquatic

While many doubted that his Olympic feat was possible, Phelps's confidence seemed unwavering. "I have goals that are very high, and I'm not giving up until those goals are accomplished," Phelps told Scholastic before the Olympic Games began.

HEIGHT AND WEIGHT 1.9 meters (6 feet, 4 inches); 88.5 kilograms (195 pounds)

WINGSPAN From fingertip to fingertip, Phelps's wingspan is 7.6 centimeters (3 in.) longer than his height. On average, a person's wingspan is about the same length as one's height. Phelps's extra armlength helps him achieve an elongated stroke and have more leverage to stay balanced in the water.

MUSCLES Like many elite athletes, Phelps's intense training has made his muscles ultraeffective. Normally, muscle cells use oxygen to burn a sugar called glucose as fuel. In some cases, such as when a swimmer does swim sprints, cells also burn a byproduct of that reaction called lactic acid. Very efficient muscles are able to rapidly convert lactic acid into fuel. Phelps's muscle cells burn through lactic acid so quickly that he was found to have half as much lactic acid as other elite swimmers after a race. Another hallmark of tiptop conditioning: Phelps's muscles can do more with less oxygen, so they don't need to make as much lactic acid. "[These capabilities] are often a key factor in who wins a race," says exercise physiologist Todd Keylock of Bowling Green State University.

TORSO Phelps has an extra-long torso. It is the length of what's expected for a man who is 10 cm (4 in.) taller than he is. His upper body forms a V-shape, beginning with broad shoulders and ending in a narrow, 81 cm (32 in.) waist. The streamlined shape is perfect for torpedoing through the water.

LEGS Phelps's legs are short in comparison to his height. He has the legs of a man who is 1.8 m (6 ft) tall. This is an advantage because water resistance, or drag, is highest in swimmers' legs, and slows them down. "Shorter legs minimize drag in this area," says Langendorfer.

HANDS With hands the size of dinner plates, Phelps practically has built-in paddles. "The larger surface area generates more propulsive force," says Langendorfer.

FEET Phelps's size-14 feet are about one shoe size larger than average for his height. Like flippers, they allow him to produce greater thrust with each kick.

JOINTS Superflexible elbows, knees, and ankles allow Phelps to have an exaggerated range of motion. Phelps's stretched-out stroke and flexible feet allow him to create stronger propulsion in the water.

it's your choice

1. What do muscle cells normally burn as fuel?

(A) lactic acid

(B) glucose

(C) carbon dioxide

(D) fat

2. Which feature of Phelps's body helps minimize drag?

(A) hands

(B) feet

(C) joints

(D) legs

3. Phelps is 1.9 meters tall and has a wingspan that is 7.6 centimeters longer than his height. How long is Phelps's wingspan in centimeters?

(A) 9.5 centimeters

(B) 197.6 centimeters

(C) 761.9 centimeters

(D) 1,976 centimeters


1. b 2. d 3. b

web extra

To get more information on competitive swimming, visit:


* Michael Phelps has become a household name. What is he known for?

* Phelps trains hard and has amazing form while swimming. But he also has some physical features that help him beat the competition. What body parts are most actively involved in swimming, and how might differences in those body parts affect a person's swimming ability?


* Phelps eats two pounds of pasta a day, along with a list of other foods that total 10,000 calories!

* Phelps's goggles filled up with water during the 200-meter butterfly final in Belling, but he kept swimming with only limited sight. Good thing, too: He swam his way to his fourth Belling gold medal. He went on to win four more hard-fought races, including one that he won by only one-hundredth of a second.

* Michael Phelps, now known for his focus and determination, overcame attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to win the most gold medals (14) in Olympic history.


* In addition to his training and unique build, Michael Phelps, and many other swimmers at the Belling Olympics, wore special swimsuits made by Speedo. The suits are designed to minimize drag so athletes can swim faster. Do you think it is fair to compare the swim times of today's swimmers with those from the earliest Olympics, despite their use of new technologies developed for the sport? Why or why not?


MATH: Show students an image of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and ask what they know about this image (see resources, below). The Vitruvian theory states that for most people, their height roughly equals their wingspan. Provide metric tape-measures for students to measure their own heights and wingspans in centimeters. Do their results support the Vitruvian theory?


* Read this interview with Michael Phelps's mother, Debbie Phelps, from Scholastic's Parent & Child magazine. In it, she discusses how she and her son claimed victory over his ADHD: /browse/article.jsp?id=3750438

* For more information on the Vitruvian Man, visit this site from Stanford University: /submissions/clabaugh/history/leonardo.html


DIRECTIONS: Match the word in the left column with the correct phrase in the right column.

-- 1. kinesiologist

-- 2. drag

-- 3. wingspan

-- 4. streamlined

-- 5. glucose

a. frictionlike force that resists forward movement

b. sugar that the body uses as fuel

c. optimally shaped for motion

d. scientist who studies human movement

e. length of your arms stretched out; measured from fingertip to fingertip


1. d 2. a 3. e 4. c 5. b


Medal Tally

In "Built to Swim" (p. 11), you read about Michael Phelps, who made Olympic history by winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games. Hundreds of other athletes from the United States and countries around the world took home gold, silver, and bronze medals. Study the chart: below of the Top-10 medal-winning countries, and then answer the questions that follow.

1. Fill in the column labeled "Total Number of Medals," for each country in the chart above.

2. On a separate sheet of paper, create a bar graph displaying the total number of medals won by each country listed in the chart.

3. Which country won the most total medals?

4. Which country won the most gold medals?

5. Which country won more silver medals than either gold or bronze alone?

6. In your opinion, which country "won" the Olympics? State reasons to support your position.

7. This chart ranks countries in order of the most medals won. Give one other way in which it could have been arranged. Which country would have been at the top of the list in that case?


1. (United States: 110); China: 100: Russia 72: Great Britain: 47: Australia: 46: Germany: 41 : France: 40: South Korea: 31: Italy: 28; Ukraine: 27.

3. The United States won the most total medals.

4. China won the most gold medals.

5. The United States won more silver medals than either gold or bronze alone.

6. Answers will vary but may include the United States because it won the most medals or China because it won the most gold medals.

7. Answers will vary but may include that the list could have been ranked by the number of gold medals won rather than by the total number of medals won. In that case, China would have been atop the list.
Top-10 Medal-Winning Countries

   Country      Number of   Number of   Number of   Total Number
                  Gold       Silver      Bronze      of Medals
                 Medals      Medals      Medals

United States      36          38          36           110
China              51          21          28
Russia             23          21          28
Great Britain      19          13          15
Australia          14          15          17
Germany            16          10          15
France              7          16          17
South Korea        13          10           8
Italy               8          10          10
Ukraine             7           5          15

SOURCE: NBC Olympics (
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:LIFE: HUMAN BODY
Author:Carney, Elizabeth
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 8, 2008
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