LONDON -- Michael Phelps lingered on the blocks, not wanting
to make another shocking blunder. The 19th medal was his. All he
had to do was avoid a DQ, then set off on what amounted to four
Down and back, then down and back again, the roars getting
louder with each stroke.
When Phelps touched the wall, he finally had gold at his final
And a record for the ages.
Phelps swam into history with a lot of help from his friends,
taking down the last major record that wasn't his alone. He took
the anchor leg for the United States in a gold medal-winning
performance of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay Tuesday night,
earning the 19th Olympic medal of his brilliant career, and the
A more appropriate color.
"I've put my mind to doing something that nobody had ever done
before," Phelps said. "This has been an amazing ride."
About an hour earlier, Phelps took one of his most frustrating
defeats at the pool, blowing it at the finish and settling for
silver in his signature event, the 200 butterfly.
That tied the record for career medals held by Soviet gymnast
Larisa Latynina, but it was hardly a triumphant moment. Phelps
slung away his cap in disgust and struggled to force a smile at the
But any disappointment from that race was gone by the time he
dived in the water on the relay, having been staked to a huge lead
by teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens.
Before the race, they all huddled together, fully aware of their
role in history.
"I thanked those guys for helping me get to this moment,"
Phelps said. "I told those guys I wanted a big lead. I was like,
'You better give me a big lead going into the last lap,' and they
gave it to me. I just wanted to hold on. I thanked them for being
able to allow me to have this moment."
Berens handed off a lead of nearly 4 seconds to Phelps, who was
extra cautious with the exchange, knowing the only way he could
ruin this one was to get disqualified.
Lochte stood on the deck, waving his arms. Dwyer and Berens
pumped their fists. And Phelps touched the wall for his first gold
of the London Games with a cumulative time of 6 minutes, 59.70
No one else was close. France's Yannick Agnel swam a faster
final leg than Phelps, but it wasn't nearly good enough, his
country taking silver in 7:02.77. China was far back in third at
"Congrats to Michael Phelps for breaking the all-time Olympic medal record. You've made your country proud," tweeted President Barack Obama.
Phelps might have backed into the record a bit by failing to win
any of his first three events at these games, but there's no
denying his legacy as one of the greatest Olympians ever - if not
"The legacy he has left behind for swimming is fantastic,"
said South African Chad le Clos, the guy who beat him in the
butterfly. "Even in Africa, everyone knows Michael Phelps."
Phelps has 15 golds in his career, six more than anyone else, to
go along with two silvers and two bronzes. After failing to medal
in his only race at the 2000 Sydney Games, he won six golds and two
bronzes in Athens, followed by his epic eight gold medals in
Beijing. And now the swan song, not nearly as epic but enough.
Latynina won nine golds, five silvers and four bronzes from
"You are now a complete legend!" the public-address announcer
bellowed, accompanied by the Foo Fighters' song "Best of You."
Phelps still has three more events in London before he retires,
three more chances to establish a mark that will be hard for anyone
"It has been a pretty amazing career," the 27-year-old said,
"but we still have a couple races to go."
Several fans held up a bedsheet with "PHELPS GREATEST OLYMPIAN
EVER" handwritten on it.
Hard to argue with that, though this hasn't exactly been the
farewell Phelps was hoping for -- a sluggish fourth-place finish in
the 400 individual medley, a runner-up showing in the 4x100 free
relay, then another silver in the 200 fly.
The 200 fly was a race he had not lost at either the Olympics or
world championships since Sydney, when he finished fifth as an
unknown 15-year-old just soaking up the moment, a kid with big dreams but no idea they would turn out like this.
Phelps, after leading the entire race, tried to glide into the
wall instead of taking one more stroke. Le Clos took that extra
stroke and beat Phelps by five-hundredths of a second.
"Obviously I would have liked to have a better outcome in the
200 fly," Phelps said. "I was on the receiving end of getting
touched out. Chad swam a good race. I've gotten to know him a
little over the last year. He's a hard worker, he's a tough
competitor and he's a racer."
Le Clos pounded the water when he saw the "1" beside his name.
"He has always been an inspiration to me and a role model," le
Clos said. "I've watched all his races a million times and I've
run the commentary over and over. Now, I guess I can watch my
Phelps hung on the lane rope and buried his face in his hands,
disgusted with himself for having squandered what looked like a
sure gold. Le Clos won South Africa's second swimming gold of the games in a time of 1:52.96. Phelps finished in 1:53.01, while
Japan's Takeshi Matsuda took the bronze in 1:53.21.
"It's obviously my last one," Phelps said. "I would have
liked to win, but 1:53 flat isn't a terrible time. When you look at
the picture of it, it's a decent time."
But the finish was a stunner, given that Phelps had won a
memorable race at Beijing when a rival made the very same error.
Milorad Cavic of Serbia thought he had the 100 fly in the bag after
his final stroke, but Phelps made the split-second decision to get
in one more stroke and slammed into the wall -- one-hundredth of a
second ahead of Cavic.
This time, it was Phelps on the losing end. He was again denied
a chance to become the first male swimmer to win the same
individual event at three straight Olympics, though he can still do
it in the 200 individual medley and the 100 butterfly.
Lochte was also feeling better about himself, having struggled
in two straight events after opening the Olympics with a dominating
win in the 400 individual medley. He swam the anchor of the 4x100
free relay, but was chased down by Agnel after being handed a
comfortable lead. Then he was fourth -- far behind Agnel -- in the
"After that relay, my confidence went down," Lochte said.
"Everyone just kept on telling me, 'You know what, you're better
than that. Just forget about it and move on.' I didn't swim at all
this morning, which I thought helped. I woke up this morning and I
was back to myself. I was that happy-go-lucky guy, so I think
that's what really helped me throughout the whole day."
After losing the 200 fly, Phelps retrieved his cap, went over to
congratulate le Clos, and hustled out of the pool to get ready for
the relay. Before that, Phelps had to return to the deck for a
medal ceremony that he clearly would have preferred to skip. He bit
his lip, leaned over to have the silver medal draped around his
neck, and forced a weak smile.
It sure didn't feel like a celebration.
But the mood was much different when he came out with his
teammates to accept gold for the relay. He bantered playfully with
the crowd. He posed with an American flag. He propped up a chair
trying to reach his mom and two sisters, sitting in the front row.
As Phelps lingered on the deck, doing television interviews, a
crowd of U.S. supporters broke into a chant.
"Four more years! Four more years!"
But, really, what's left for someone who's already the greatest?
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.