A swimming legend got one of his sweetest victories yet.
Michael Phelps defeated Ryan Lochte in their highly anticipated 200 IM battle on Thursday night, becoming the first man to ever win the same individual event in three straight Olympics and adding to his legacy as the greatest champion in the history of the Summer Games.
He got out to an early lead with a blistering butterfly leg, crushed Lochte in the backstroke, held the lead in the breaststroke, then pulled away at the end to seal his record 16th gold medal. It was his first individual gold in London.
[ Related: Where does Phelps rank among all-time Olympians? ]
Lochte finished with the silver. He had finished a surprising third in the 200 backstroke, his signature event, 40 minutes before the 200 IM final. Two trips to the podium in one night would make a career for most swimmers. Not for Lochte. He was expected to win a fistful of golds in London and Thursday was to be his coronation as the greatest swimmer in the world.
Phelps has already held that title and had different goals for London. Some say he was in legacy mode, a statement which suggests Phelps needed to add anything to his. He didn't; his legacy was set the moment that 4x100 medley relay finished in Beijing and he clinched his record eighth medal in a single Olympics. That mark will never be topped and is unlikely to ever be approached.
[ Photos: Michael Phelps Olympic career ]
This was an ammunition win. It advances the statement that Phelps is the greatest Olympian who ever lived -- something that was true whether he won or lost -- and gives supporters another way to back it up.
The 2012 Olympics started out with a shock loss in the 400 IM and a devastating collapse in the 200 fly. A Tuesday relay brought gold, but his individual races were lagging. Not that it mattered. Phelps could have sunk to the bottom in each of his races and still would have gone down as the greatest Olympian ever.
Phelps is a different swimmer in London than he was in either Beijing or Athens. He's more relaxed. After eight years of watching him force his way through interviews, there's been a carefree breeze to his chats in London. His personality is coming out. You get the sense that this is the real Phelps.
When he swept Beijing, Phelps reacted with as much relief as joy. Never before had an Olympic athlete had as much pressure on him as Phelps had in Beijing. The press had been buzzing for four years about his prospects of passing Mark Spitz and it weighed on him heavily.
[ Related: Can Missy Frankin fill the media void after Phelps? ]
London Phelps has been more laid back and relaxed. He's rebounded from two disasters with ease. When he finished out of the medals in the 400 IM, he was back one night later swimming a blistering 100 freestyle leg to help give the U.S. a lead in the 4x100 relay. On Tuesday, Phelps lost the 200 butterfly in a major competition for the first time in a decade. He was gracious in defeat, putting his arm around his vanquisher, South Africa's Chad Le Clos, and speaking highly of him in a post-race press conference. One hour later, the loss was forgotten after he and his 4x200 relay teammates won gold, a medal which made Phelps the winningest Olympian in history.
For other athletes, it could have been a nightmare. Phelps barely let it bother him.
He is set to retire after London, meaning this was the last time he'll ever swim against Lochte. And as he has so many times before, Michael Phelps walked off the deck with the upper hand, 20 medals in his possession and another would-be vanquisher left in his wake.
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