Michael Phelps' disastrous individual performance in London took the most unexpected turn yet.
The American swimming star was defeated in the final meters of the 200 butterfly, the signature race he had won decisively at the previously two Olympics. In the final meters, Phelps' stroke fell apart and he couldn't hold off South African Chad le Clos, who stormed from behind to win by .05 seconds.
Phelps was leading the whole way and appeared to be in control of the race he has dominated for a decade. It was to be another easy victory in the event and the 15th gold medal of his illustrious Olympic career. The first sign of trouble came on the final turn, when Phelps jammed his stroke and allowed the field to come back to him a bit. He pulled ahead of the streamline, but tired with each successive stroke. With 15 meters left, the textbook form of his fly -- straight arms, head outstretched, back arched -- had devolved into a jumbled mess unlike anything he's ever demonstrated on the international scene.
[ Photos: Michael Phelps ]
The finish was the exact opposite of Phelps' epic win in the 100 butterfly in Beijing. In that race, Phelps took advantage of Serbian Milorad Cavic gliding into the wall and stormed to the win with a lightning-quick stroke. This time, it was Phelps gliding and Le Clos who swooped in for the victory. It brought to mind the 4x100 relay on Sunday, a race which played in the bizarro fashion of the American's come-from-behind win in Beijing.
Phelps was trying to become the first swimmer in history to win the same event at three straight Olympics. There's a reason it's never been done before.
The 27-year-old made his Olympic debut in the 200 fly as a 15-year-old at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. From 2002 through 2011, he never lost the race.
[ Related: Phelps sets all-time Olympic record with 19th medal ]
He set some history even in defeat. The silver was his 18th overall medal, tying him for most ever with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. It was small consolation in the moment, but mattered 50 minutes later, when Phelps anchored a gold-medal victory by the United States 4x200 freestyle relay. That gave him his 19th medal and broke the brief tie.
Phelps finished fourth in the 400 IM on Saturday night. Tuesday's defeat gives him one silver medal in two individual races, a result that even the most pessimistic forecasts couldn't have seen coming. Phelps was never going to repeat Beijing; nobody ever suspected he would. But to finish off the medal stand and touch second in the two races that were his signature for so many years were a swimming stunner.
The loss doesn't hurt Phelps' legacy -- he'd have gone down as the greatest Olympian in history even if he had touched in last. It may actually help it: With his two losses and Ryan Lochte's fourth-place finish in the 200 free on Monday, it becomes more clear than ever that winning eight gold medals in eight races in Beijing was the greatest sporting achievement of our generation.
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