LONDON – Michael Phelps was smiling underwater at one point Tuesday night, tearing up on the medals stand at another, staring in shock at the scoreboard at a third.
The riot of emotions along the way to making history was enough to leave even the greatest of Olympians limp. No wonder Phelps said this milestone evening would end with him taking an ice bath and "trying to pass out."
In the space of an hour at the Aquatics Centre, Phelps swam two races with dramatically different outcomes. He was stunned at the finish of his signature event, the 200-meter butterfly, out-touched by yet another 20-year-old upstart in a London Games full of them. Then he was handed a massive lead in the 4x200 freestyle relay and brought it home with the class of a champion for his first gold medal of these Olympics – something we didn't think would take until his fourth swim here to accomplish.
Nineteen times now, Michael Phelps has bowed his head on an Olympic medals podium and had precious hardware slipped around his neck. That eclipses the decades-old record of 18 medals set by Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina. Fifteen of the medals have been gold (another record), two have been silver, and two have been bronze. With three events left, there should be more to come this week.
When viewed from a wide angle, it is a staggering achievement. Just making the United States Olympic team puts a swimmer in rare and elite company. Advancing to win a single medal further thins the ranks of the exceptional. Winning multiple medals or appearing in multiple Olympics establishes the greatest of the great.
And then there is Phelps, now standing alone above everyone in the history of a global sporting event that dates to B.C. In the course of redefining the standards for swimming versatility, longevity, and excellence in 12 years as an Olympian, he has matured before our eyes. At times Tuesday he sounded more humble and wise than ever before.
"I've put my mind on doing something nobody has ever done before," Phelps said. "Nothing was going to stand in my way. … This has been an amazing ride."
[ Photos: Michael Phelps ]
Tuesday night was an amazing ride in and of itself.
In yet another reverse déjà vu moment from Phelps's karma-kissed, eight-gold tour de force in Beijing, he lost a butterfly race on the touch. Four years ago, Phelps's aggressive finish somehow beat a gliding Milorad Cavic of Serbia by a single one-hundredth of a second. This time, Phelps was the glider and South African Chad le Clos was the harder charger at the wall.
It was too close to call with the naked eye. Or maybe too Clos.
Then the scoreboard flashed the evidence: le Clos finished in 1 minute, 52.96 seconds. Phelps touched in 1:53.01. Beaten by 0.05, it was the two-time defending champion's turn to stare at the results in disbelief.
"I'm not going to make excuses," Phelps said, volunteering that his poor finish was the result of lazy finishing habits in practice. "That came out at the moment I needed the most. I'm OK with that. That's the choice I made."
That's the accountable 27-year-old Phelps talking.
Fittingly, the man who handed the king his first international defeat in the 200 fly in more than a decade is a Phelps groupie. Le Clos described himself as Phelps's "biggest fan." He said he's studied all of Phelps's races and copied his techniques – including his trademark underwater blastoff into the final 50 of the 200 fly.
"It sounds kind of crazy," le Clos said, "but I actually thought I was Michael on that last turn."
Being like Mike worked. Le Clos steadily closed on Phelps – who, as a younger man, was always pulling away at that point of the race. Still, it appeared in the final meters that Phelps would hold on – right up until the last stroke.
Le Clos said he has video of the 2008 Phelps-Cavic race saved on his laptop "in about seven different languages." So he knew the proper way to finish a butterfly race, and he used it to beat the man who went against his own personal history.
"To be honest, I thought I was really lucky at the finish," le Clos said. "I had a perfect touch."
The luck was all on Phelps's side four years ago. Now, having watched him flail to a fourth and two seconds in his first three races here, we can truly appreciate how insanely hard it was to go eight for eight.
Despite the sting of losing that race, Phelps was a gracious and smiling member of the medal ceremony. He advised le Clos to "live the moment and enjoy it," then hustled off to get ready for the relay.
The relay was the race that would break the medal record, and it would have taken a catastrophic American failure to miss the podium. But clearly, Phelps needed a gold to make the moment all it could be – especially with him in the anchor position.
Accordingly, Phelps gave his relay mates simple marching orders: "Get me a big lead."
They complied. Unlike the 4x100 free relay on Sunday, when the Americans fell from ahead to get silver against the French, this one was never in doubt. Ryan Lochte led off with a redemptive first leg, opening up a one-second lead. Conor Dwyer followed up solidly, upping the lead to two seconds. Ricky Berens stretched it to four, and then Phelps entered the water.
He was up against French sensation Yannick Agnel, the 6-foot-7 ½ 20-year-old who buried Lochte in the 4x100 relay and then dominated the 200 free the next night. And while Agnel swam another sensational leg – his split of 1:43.24 was the fastest of anyone in the race – he could not close enough distance to make it a tight race. Phelps swam the second-fastest leg of the night at 1:44.05, and he could start the celebration early.
"I did start to smile with 20 or 25 meters to go," Phelps said.
Smiling his way to the wall, Phelps then was engulfed in the roars of the crowd and the congratulations of his teammates. He offered praise to Agnel, telling him his 200 free performance Monday night "was probably one of the top five swims of all-time." Phelps had qualified to swim that race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, but scratched it.
"I'm glad I was not in that race," Phelps said. "Oh, man, those guys would have smoked me."
[ Related: Phelps finishes second in 200-meter butterfly ]
Humility and perspective. Phelps knows his limitations now, knows that at career's end he can be smoked – and he's secure enough to say it out loud.
Phelps huddled with his American relay mates and thanked them for helping him achieve the record. Then he told them they were on their own when it came to singing the national anthem.
He could feel the emotions surging already.
Phelps's brown eyes welled up on the podium, looking like those of a teenager who had just won his first medal. The emotional impact of everything – the peaks and valleys of this meet, the struggle to regain his form this year, the entire arc of his career as it winds down – tugged at him.
"Lot of emotions going through my head right now," he said.
In the stands at the Aquatics Centre, dressed in crisp white pants and a navy polo with the Team Russia logo, sat the woman he surpassed. Larissa Latynina stood both times Phelps raced, fixated on him. She stayed through both his medal ceremonies, watching officials place Olympic medals Nos. 18 and 19 around his neck.
"Yes, he got it now," she said. "Now it is up to him to hold this record, and we'll see how long it lasts."
Forever is a long time. But that may be the case.
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