Why Michael Phelps' latest Olympic masterpiece may have been his most impressive yet

RIO DE JANEIRO – At the end of one of the best nights of the best Olympic career ever, Michael Phelps literally ran off an interview podium in bare feet with a white towel wrapped around his waist, three containers of food in his hands.

It was 1:23 a.m., local time. A young man’s hour, and way past a swimmer’s bedtime. But the 31-year-old still had urgency about him, energized by the greatness he had just perpetrated and the promise of more – still more, somehow more, always more – to come.

What had just transpired was the Night of the GOAT, an audacious 80-minute distillation of everything Phelps had poured into his swimming comeback and life makeover. In that span Phelps reclaimed ownership of his favorite event, cried at the national anthem, laughed at his friends, kissed his fiancée, kissed his baby son, tore his swim cap, replaced it with a teammate’s cap, and anchored an American relay that nobody was sure he’d even be on.

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A whole lot of stuff happened. All of it fairly epic. Phelps has always been a dream-big guy, a no-limits guy, but this comeback was predicated on prudence – everything would be smaller in scope this time around. The days of the crazily ambitious programs, swimming a ton of events, they were supposed to be in the past.

Yet the more he trained and the better he did, the more the scope expanded. He grew the individual event list from two to three. And the relay list ballooned from one to three.

Suddenly, the old codger is halfway to six gold medals. More than he won as a 19-year-old in 2004. More than he won as a 27-year-old in 2012. Tonight’s 80-minute adventure makes another outrageous Olympic haul possible.

Gold medals bookended those 80 minutes, Phelps’ 20th and 21st of his impossible career, one in the 200 butterfly and one swimming the anchor leg on the 800 freestyle relay. It raised his overall Olympic medal total to 25, but these rank among the most special.

Michael Phelps has three golds with three events left at the Rio Games. (AP)
Michael Phelps has three golds with three events left at the Rio Games. (AP)

At 10:38 p.m., the quest for double gold began. From Lane 5, Phelps dove in for the 200-meter butterfly with his mind absolutely fixated on winning. He is a legendarily determined competitor, but this was next-level will.

Phelps has owned this event like no other swimmer has owned any event in the 21st century. He set his first world record in it at age 15 in 2000, and has kept the record ever since – lowering it seven times. He won gold in it in 2004 and ’08.

But four years ago, he was shocked at the end by 20-year-old South African Chad Le Clos. That hurt Phelps more than he ever let on – mostly because he knew he had only himself to blame for failing to train hard enough for those Olympics. That knowledge – that he shorted himself – was haunting during his retirement from the sport after the London Games.

“It kind of stuck with me,” Phelps said. “I really wanted that one back. I told Bob [Bowman] when I came back how bad I wanted that 200 fly.”

During the comeback, a rivalry with Le Clos sprouted – the two took verbal shots at each other last summer from different ends of the world, Le Clos in Russia at the World Championships and Phelps in disciplinary exile at the U.S. National meet in San Antonio. And Monday night in Rio, NBC’s ready-room camera took it up another notch with video of Le Clos shadow-boxing while an inert and hooded Phelps eyed him like a disdainful Jedi master.

“I came to the pool tonight with a mission,” Phelps said. “… There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight. And if I did, every ounce I had would be left in the pool.”

It took all the ounces. A tiring Phelps dragged himself through the final strokes while trying to hold off Japan’s Masato Sakai, who was charging from two lanes to his right.

“The last 10 meters were not fun,” Phelps said. “I felt like I was standing still.”

In a startling flashback to Olympic butterfly finishes past, Phelps found himself in no-man’s land at the very end. He could glide in, but that was part of what cost him the 200 fly title in 2012, when he was out-touched by .05 seconds. Or he could chop one more stroke – something that can backfire as often as it works in races decided by eyeblinks.

Before the race, Phelps told himself that if it came down to that scenario again, he was taking the extra stroke.

“Same as ’08,” he said, referencing the half-stroke that beat Mike Cavic in the 100 fly by a single hundredth of a second. “I thought it might cost me the race, but it won the race.”

Here, it worked again. Phelps whipped his arms back and through one more time, hitting the touch pad .04 ahead of Sakai – the closest finish in Olympic 200 fly history. He now owns the two closest butterfly finishes in the history of the Games.

The man has a flair for the dramatic.

No less an authority on Phelps’ career than the guy who has coached all of it, Bob Bowman, ranked that gold medal way high on the GOAT highlight list. Bowman said it was his second-favorite Phelps gold, trailing only the first one, in the 400 individual medley in Athens in 2004.

“Everything he had was in there,” Bowman said. “That was it, right there.”

Imagine, then, turning around about an hour later and summoning more. At an age when doubling up is like beating your body with a hammer.

After a rather zesty in-pool celebration – complete with either a cheeky finger wiggle, a Lilly King finger wag or a simple harmless index finger in the air – Phelps had to regroup.

He hit the warmdown pool to stay loose, then put on the Team USA podium sweats for the 200 fly medal ceremony. While waiting for his medal, Phelps stretched his legs and back – the price of multitasking. But once that medal went around his neck and the national anthem played, he clearly was in the moment and not thinking of another race to come.

The dead giveaway was the tears in his eyes.

“I was going through the last 16 years,” he said, to his first Olympic swim in 2000. “That event was kind of my bread and butter. That was the last time I’ll ever swim it.”

Amid that reverie, something jarred him into laughter. It was the sound of some buddies accenting the “Oh” near the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That was something Orioles fans do back in Phelps’ hometown of Baltimore – and it was something three of his friends did in the stands at Olympic Aquatics Stadium.

“That brought me right back to Camden Yards,” Phelps said.

Laughing instead of crying, Phelps still soaked in the post-anthem medal parade. He went into the stands to kiss his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, and their baby, Boomer. It wasn’t until 11:27 – 11 minutes before the scheduled start of the relay – that he ducked under the stands to get ready for the final act of the night.

[Related: Heartwarming photos of Olympians celebrating with their families]

Blessed with a couple of extra minutes, Phelps and relay teammates Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte emerged at 11:39. At 11:40, Phelps sat down in a chair behind the starting block to get a little more rest.

At 11:41 he stood to stretch. At 11:42 they started the race, Dwyer going first. He staked the U.S. to a lead, giving way to Olympic rookie Townley Haas. And Haas blew the thing open.

“Watching Michael’s fly got me so pumped up,” Haas said, and he showed it by blazing a 1:44.1 split – fastest of any swimmer in the race.

But while Haas was churning through the water and distancing the Americans from the British and Japanese relays, Phelps had one more issue to deal with. He ripped his “MP” brand cap while pulling it on.

“Diddy,” Phelps said to Dwyer, calling him by his nickname. “I need your cap.”

Even in a momentary crisis, Phelps had the wherewithal to turn it inside out – Dwyer is sponsored by Speedo, so he couldn’t be wearing that brand in front of the world. Sponsorship obligations and all.

Re-outfitted, Phelps watched Lochte hold serve and then dove in at 11:46 to deafening roars. Once again, there was no way in hell he was going to lose this. Not with the lead he’d been given.

Phelps finished at 11:48, hauling himself wearily out of the water at 11:49. He waved, he pumped fists, he reveled in yet another signature moment.

Ninety minutes later, clad in a towel and a warmup jacket and nothing else, Phelps’ day was finally done. There is much left to do – three rounds of the 200 IM, three rounds of the 100 fly, plus a medley relay – seemingly more glory to come.

But no matter what happens next, Michael Phelps will remember this double forever. In a career packed with incredible nights, this one ranks near the very top.

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