Can you really smile while you’re swimming? Most of us, I’d imagine, would fill our ducts with rivers of chlorine. But Michael Phelps, who has gills for something, has no problem grinning in the pool. With about 20 m left in the 4 x 200-m freestyle relay in London on Tuesday night, Phelps knew he had it: he was about to win a gold medal, the 19th Olympic medal of his career, breaking the record held by former Soviet Union gymnast Larisa Latynina. “I started smiling,” Phelps says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that in a race before.”
He had good reason. After Beijing, what more could Phelps accomplish in the pool? Phelps was never going to win eight gold medals in London; after he spent part of the past four years, by his own admission, slacking off, it was clear he had no great desire to repeat Beijing. “In the pool, we’ve done the work,” says Phelps. “And sometimes not done the work.” But he still didn’t own one honorific, that of the most decorated Olympian of all time. He needed three more pieces of hardware.
Few people, over the past four years, talked much about this final milestone. Phelps’ own family was in the dark. Until this year, says Phelps’ sister Hilary, “we didn’t even know about the record. It didn’t register on our radar that he was three away from being the greatest Olympian of all time.” So there’s no doubt he’s the best now, right? Hillary shrugs, which says it all. “He’s the greatest ever, you know,” she says.
The record clearly motivated Phelps to return to the Olympics in top form. “Being able to do something that’s never been done before, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Phelps says. “There was nothing that was going to stand in my way of being the first Michael Phelps.” After finishing in fourth place in the 400-m individual medley on Saturday and winning silver in the 4 x 100-m relay, Phelps eased his attitude coming into the historic night. “I guess the last couple of days have been a lot more relaxed,” Phelps says. “From the very first day, I was super tight, I was trying to be all superserious. And just the last couple of days, I’ve just been laughing all the time, joking, having fun.”
For Phelps, the night didn’t get off to a joyous start. In the 2008 100-m butterfly race, Phelps memorably caught Serbian Milorad Cavic at the last possible moment, beating him by one-hundredths of a second. In London, Phelps got caught at the end: after leading for most of the race, Phelps, Takeshi Matsuda of Japan and Chad Le Clos of South Africa splashed furiously toward the finish, bunched together in three lanes, like cars in one of those scoreboard races at a baseball game. Who would touch first? It was anyone’s guess.
The winner: Le Clos, over Phelps by five-hundredths of a second. The South African had clipped his idol. “Phelps is my hero, and I love the guy,” Le Clos says. He knew the history, having watched Phelps catch Cavic in Beijing countless times on his laptop. “I’ve got it in like seven different languages,” Le Clos says of that race. “I’ve watched his races millions of times. I guess I can watch now my race.” Le Clos gained momentum on the final turn. “It sounds crazy, but I actually thought I was Michael at that last turn,” Le Clos says. “I just remembered how he used to do it. When I turned that way, I looked at him. It was a trigger point, that I could do something special.”
The loss fired Phelps up. “I sure as hell wasn’t happy,” Phelps says. But he was also drained from the race and had to swim the relay in less than an hour. “I told those guys I wanted a big lead,” says Phelps. “I wanted a biiiiiiig lead going into this last leg.” He got it: Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer, and Ricky Berens gave Phelps a cushion, and Phelps swam his 200-m in 1:44:05 — the fastest among his teammates. Afterward, the joyous Americans huddled together. “I thanked them for allowing me to have this moment,” says Phelps.
Phelps’ family and dozens of friends were on hand to see it. As most fans filed out of the Aquatics Centre, rows of Phelps fans stayed behind to snap some final photos as he conducted television interviews. Phelps’ mother Debbie signed autographs and took pictures with children. “Wow, wow,” she says. “I mean, wow, wow.” After her son crossed the finish, Debbie was overcome with emotion. “It was just the joy on Michael’s face,” Debbie says, before choking up again. “That was so … magical to me. Because he had goals to reach, and he wasn’t done yet.”