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LONDON – Michael Phelps’s last individual swim of his incomparable career was fittingly golden. Phelps rallied from seventh in the final 50 meters to win the 100 butterfly in a time of 51.21 seconds.
In the process, Phelps further put his Olympics body of work out of reach for those who will follow him. It was his record 21st Olympic medal, his record 17th gold medal, and his third straight gold in the 100 fly. On Thursday night in the 200 individual medley, Phelps became the first swimmer ever to win the same individual event in three consecutive Olympic Games. Now he has a double three-peat.
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But as usual in this event, it didn’t come easy. Phelps beat South African Chad le Clos and Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin by 0.23 seconds, with those two tying for second.
"I don't even want to complain about going slower [than in the semifinals] or having a bad turn or bad finish," said Phelps. "I just wanted this one to be a win. We can smile and be happy. It was fun."
In Athens in 2004, Phelps edged out American teammate Ian Crocker by 0.04. In Beijing in 2008, he nipped Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by 0.01 – a photo finish to what is probably Phelps’s most famous race.
This was not that close.
[ Photos: Michael Phelps with his 21 medals ]
Cavic was in the final field of eight again this time. But since coming off back surgery in 2010 he has not been able to regain the speed he had in leading Phelps until an inch from the wall in Beijing. Cavic finished fourth Friday night.
The London Games are Phelps’s swan song, and after a stunning fourth-place finish in his first event, he has regrouped and given himself a proper sendoff. Phelps has three gold medals and two silver and will be part of a prohibitively favored American 400 medley relay Saturday. Unless something goes horribly wrong in that event, it will mark the sixth time an American has won six medals in a single Olympic swim meet – half of them by Phelps. The others are Mark Spitz in 1972, Matt Biondi in 1988, and Natalie Coughlin in 2008.
Phelps’s victory continued a dominant meet for American swimmers. With 13 gold medals through the 100 fly Friday night – including the overpowering victory by 17-year-old Missy Franklin in the 200 backstroke right before Phelps’s win – the Americans are on pace to win their most swimming golds in a non-boycotted Games since 1972, when they won 17. And that number is not out of reach either before the meet ends Saturday night.
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