Phelps Fever: Portrait of Michael Phelps at NPG

Portrait of Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps / By Ryan McGinley, 2004 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. . . .It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Michael Phelps! Olympic superhero Michael Phelps accomplished what he came to Beijing to do: he became the first athlete to win eight gold medals in a single Olympiad.

His dominance was unprecedented, and even otherworldly—perhaps he was born on the planet Krypton? Well, Baltimore, actually, in 1985. Five of Phelps’s wins were in individual events, and he broke seven world records overall. Counting the six gold and two bronze he won at Athens in 2004, Phelps has now collected a total of sixteen Olympic medals.

To help celebrate this historic athletic achievement, a large chromogenic print of Phelps, taken by photographer Ryan McGinley, has been installed on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery’s north wing. McGinley photographed the members of the 2004 United States Olympic swim team for a special edition of the New York Times Magazine; this photograph of Phelps was featured prominently. It will be on view at NPG through January 2009. 

Physically, the 6’4” Phelps is unique: he has an incredibly long arm span of 6’7” that boosts propulsion, an elongated torso that eliminates drag, and size-fourteen feet-flippers that allow him to undulate through the water like a wave.

For the moment, Phelps says that “every day it seems like I’m in sort of a dream world,” but his longer goal is to continue “to raise the bar a bit more in the world of swimming.”

Michael Phelps/Ryan McGinley, 2004/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution