LONDON — After a dozen years and four of these quadrennial splashfests, there was only one way for Michael Phelps to finish his solo swimming career. Standing atop the podium with a gold medal around his neck, the American flag hoisted aloft and the Star-Spangled Banner playing.
“This one was awesome,” the greatest swimmer and most bemedaled Olympian of all time proclaimed Friday night after he’d won his last individual race with arguably his greatest performance, storming out of seventh place at the turn to win the 100-meter butterfly by 23-100ths of a second in 51.21 ahead of South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Russia’s Evgeny Korotyshkin, who dead-heated for the silver.
As close as the finish was, it was more than four times as large as his Athens and Beijing victories combined. In 2004, he’d touched out teammate Ian Crocker by four-100ths of a second. In 2008, he finger-tipped Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by one-100th. “I’m just happy that the last one was a win,” said Phelps. “That’s all I really wanted.”
It was Phelps’s 17th career gold medal in 23 races and he’s all but certain to win an 18th in Saturday’s finale, when he swims a leg on the 4 x 100 medley relay, which the Americans never have lost at the Games. That would send him into retirement at 27 with 22 medals, four more than any other Olympian has won in any sport since the Lords of the Rings began handing them out in 1896.
Meanwhile Missy Franklin, the Phemale Phelps, kept augmenting her collection of precious metal that likely will surpass his if she decides to stick around for several more Olympiads. “I had the time of my life out there,” the 17-year-old Olympic newbie declared after her 2:04.06 clocking in the 200 backstroke smashed the world mark of 2:04:81 that two-time champion Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe (who finished sixth) set at the 2009 world meet in Rome.
Her victory, the first in the event by an American since Melissa Belote in 1972, added a third gold to a haul that numbers a sprint relay bronze and likely will include another gold from Saturday’s medley relay.
Franklin, who missed a bronze in the 200 free by one-100th of a second, almost certainly will leave town with five medals, which is five more than Phelps won in his debut in Sydney, where he finished fifth in his only race. Four years later he grabbed six golds and two bronzes, then went 8 for 8 four years ago.
But after Phelps finished a depleted fourth in the 400 individual medley in last Saturday’s opener, critics said he should have dechlorinated himself as soon as he’d achieved perfection.
Since then, he has earned a silver in the sprint relay that might have been a gold had Phelps, who submitted the fastest leg, anchored instead of Ryan Lochte. He missed the gold in the 200 fly when le Clos nipped him by five-100ths but since has run the table with a leg on the victorious 4 x 200 free relay (the medal that broke gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record), a gold in the 200 IM over Lochte, who’s world titlist in the event, and another in the 100 fly, which was an iffy prospect at best.
Making the podium at all seemed a long shot after Phelps flipped next to last, nearly eight-10ths of a second behind leader Cavic. But one by one he chewed them up — Joeri Verlinden of the Netherlands, teammate Tyler McGill, Germany’s Steffen Deibler, Poland’s Konrad Czerniak and then with a final long-armed glide, dispatched everybody else. “I cannot believe Phelps,” said Cavic, who finished fourth. “I’m a one-trick pony and he’s the king.”
Phelps was the first Olympian whom Katie Ledecky met, back before he began mining his motherlode. “I was probably 6,” she recalled. “I was a little swimmer. I don’t remember [what he said] but I remember we were going to our car and he was also going to his car and he was listening to his iPod and he waved. That was really cool.”
On the same night that Phelps had his final individual event, the 15-year-old Ledecky swam her first at the same age that Phelps was when he made his Games debut, in the 800 freestyle. Hers, though, was far more memorable as she swamped Spain’s Mireia Belmonte Garcia by more than four seconds in 8:14.63, blew away British defending champion Rebecca Adlington and destroyed the American record of 8:16:22 that Janet Evans set in 1989.
“I didn’t know I’d won until the 799-meter mark,” said the US squad’s kid sister, who missed Adlington’s world record by just over half a second in her first international meet. “I knew I was winning, but I didn’t want to put it out of the question that someone could come from behind and touch me out. I just didn’t want to die and fall back.”
Ledecky is one and done here but she’ll be back for more. “She is unbelievable,” said Adlington, “and has got her whole career ahead of her.”
Phelps has one more race and it figures to be a victory lap worthy of the most dominant human who ever wore goggles.
“It amazes me,” said Franklin. “The randomness of these Games. How many people are winning shows how incredible what he did is. It’s so, so hard.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.