RIO DE JANEIRO -- As he stood atop the Olympic medal stand and "The Star-Spangled Banner" played for him for the 20th time in his career, Michael Phelps fought back the tears. This was the 200-meter butterfly, the first event he swam in an Olympics. The race his sister swam. The one event in which he had won more gold than any other. And when he looked to the scoreboard and saw the "1" next to his name, it all sort of hit him. He would probably never compete in this race again.
The night had been about redemption. Not specifically targeted at South Africa's Chad le Clos, who out-touched Phelps to win gold in the event four years earlier and then drew the Phelps death stare after shadowboxing in the ready room a night earlier. This was about Phelps getting something back that he believed belonged to him.
"I didn't say anything to anybody else, but there wasn't a shot in hell I was losing that race tonight," Phelps said. "And, if I did, every ounce I had was going to be left in the pool."
One of the consistent concerns of Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, was that his star pupil wouldn't swim with enough emotion. There might have been times Bowman was right during Phelps' comeback run, but that wasn't a problem Tuesday night. Phelps stepped onto the blocks before the race, lost in his own intensely focused world. With every stroke, every kick, he did everything he physically could do to propel himself through the water as quickly as he could.
At the 50-meter mark, Phelps was eight-hundredths of a second behind Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, the reigning world champion with the fastest time in the world in 2016. But by the halfway point, Phelps pulled ahead. With 50 meters to go, he had a .67 lead on le Clos. It was at this point four years earlier where le Clos made his move, and the point le Clos hammered home to his seven competitors a night earlier was they'd be "scared" about what he could do.
But Tuesday, le Clos faded down the stretch, finishing fourth then breezing through the postrace interview area not to be heard from again. Instead, Japan's Masato Sakai came charging in the final lap, putting fear in the heart of anyone pulling for Phelps. As he approached the wall with Sakai closing, Phelps told himself he was going to take one more half stroke. He thought it might cost him the race, just like he thought it had four years earlier against Milorad Cavic in the 100 fly. But this time, again, it worked. Phelps would win by four-hundredths of a second, the closest margin in 200 fly Olympic history.
After the race, the celebration was on. Phelps first waved a No. 1 in the air and then sat atop the lane line like a king on his throne and held both of his hands high above his head.
"I came to the pool tonight on a mission," Phelps said, "and the mission was accomplished."
During the medal ceremony, up in the stands at the other end of the arena, Nicole Johnson's heart raced. She knew her fiancé would want to share this moment with their 3-month-old son, Boomer. So she and Michael's mother, Debbie, moved seats so Phelps could perhaps come back when the ceremony was over.
It had been a roller coaster 20 months for Johnson. She was the one Phelps called when he left the casino that November night in 2014 after he was arrested for DUI. She was the one who dropped him off for 45 days in a behavioral rehabilitation facility to fight his inner demons. And she was the one who watched every day as Phelps put everything he had into training for this race, on this night, with his main competition, le Clos, in the lane next to him.
As she looked at the video board and saw Phelps' eyes well, hers did the same. Later, she struggled to put it all into perspective.
"Are you kidding me?" she said. "Is that a joke? I'm speechless. I know the amount of work he put into all of this and especially that particular race. He wanted that back and he got it back."
After the American flag was raised, Phelps circled the pool, posing for photos with Sakai and bronze medalist Tamas Kenderesi of Hungary. Kederesi, the latest swimmer to grow up idolizing Phelps, was only 3 years old when Phelps' Olympic journey began in Sydney in 2000.
"When I was a child, I always watch his races and this is what prepared me for the competitions," Kederesi said. "I just want to say a big thanks to him. He really help me a lot."
After the medal parade, Phelps spotted his family and climbed a set of bleachers to say hello. Nicole, Debbie and Boomer all got a kiss. Then Nicole put the baby boy in her father's arms.
"He was like, 'No.' And I was like, 'Yes, you should hold him,'" Nicole said. "And Debbie was like, 'You're holding him.'"
Eleven minutes after holding his son, Phelps would return to the deck and swim the anchor leg of the 4x200 freestyle relay. Prior to the race, Phelps told Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte to get him a big lead. He was tired. And then, when Phelps tried to put his swim cap on, it snapped. Phelps chirped at Dwyer, who had already finished his leg and turned his cap inside out; he gave it to Phelps. The result was again gold.
"That was probably one of the most challenging doubles that I've had for sure," he said.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Phelps, Dwyer, Lochte and their other Olympic Village roommates watched videos of le Clos shadowboxing and the Phelps death stare that prompted a worldwide flood of internet memes. Then, with all that swirling around him, Phelps turned in one of the greatest performances of his career. When the night came to an end, he would have his 20th and 21st Olympic gold medals. The entire country of Brazil has only 24 combined in its Olympic history. Phelps matched Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina with a record 14 individual medals. And at 31, he became the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold in Olympic history. In interviews after Tuesday's events, there was a common theme in the comments of swimmers from all around the world: That's Michael.
He makes it seem easy. But to fully understand how remarkable Phelps' dominance is at age 31, all you have to do is look to U.S. teammate Lochte. It was Lochte who four years ago crushed the world in the 400 individual medley and had many suggesting he was better than Phelps. Now 32, he's in Rio swimming in one individual event -- the 200 IM.
Phelps, meanwhile, isn't even halfway through his program. He still has the 200 IM, 100 butterfly and a likely spot on the medley relay before his Rio Games -- and likely his career -- come to an end. He could potentially leave Rio with six gold medals, giving him a jaw-dropping 24 for his career.
"I was talking to Bob the other night and one of the things that is sticking in my head now is that's a lot of medals," Phelps said. "It's insane, mind-blowing almost to me. To think when this all started and the things we've been able to do in the sport, it's just special."
With more potentially to come.
"I'm excited with what he's going to do the rest of the meet, because, once that guy gets started, you can't stop him," Dwyer said.