Michael Phelps has been doing a lot of smiling lately. In the last lap of the 4x200m freestyle relay on Tuesday, he started smiling. Underwater. Three days later, after definitively claiming his record-setting 17th gold (and 21st medal, for those who are still counting), he couldn’t stop grinning as he got out of the pool. Usually slightly critical of his races – there’s always a start or a turn that could have been better – today, he was just happy he won.
“I’m not going to say that I was slower [than in Beijing], or I wasn’t having a better turn at the finish. I’m not even going to say that. I’m just happy the last swim was a win. That’s all I really wanted coming into the night. This one was a bigger margin of victory than the last two combined,” he says, referring to his last two close calls at the Olympics in this event. “So you can smile, and be happy.” Phelps is the first swimmer to claim gold in the 100m butterfly in three consecutive Olympics (it wasn’t his first three-peat; that happened when Phelps beat teammate Ryan Lochte in the 200m individual medley).
With Prince William and Kate in the stands, he wasn’t the only one feeling giddy on Team USA. Seventeen year-old Missy Franklin, making history as the first female swimmer to take on seven events in a single Games, earned her third gold with a world record swim in the 200m backstroke; Katie Ledecky won gold in the 800m freestyle by an impressive 4.13 seconds; and Cullen Jones rocketed his way to a silver in the 50m freestyle.
For Phelps, the race to the wall at the Aquatics Center in London wasn’t as much of a nail-biter as it was in the Water Cube in Beijing, and didn’t require a close up review of the tape. In a last-lap surge after trailing for 150m, Phelps touched the wall 0.23 seconds ahead of silver medalist Chad le Clos, the South African who beat him by 0.05 seconds in the 200m butterfly five days ago. Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who lost by 0.01 seconds to Phelps in the photo finish in 2008, came in fourth. Plagued by back problems since the last Games, he acknowledged that he wasn’t the same man who gave Phelps the biggest scare of his history-making run of eight gold medals back then: “I cannot believe Phelps. I’m a one-trick pony and he’s the king.”
That reign, at least in the pool, will end tomorrow, as Phelps swims the last race, the 4×100 medley relay, of his competitive career. “Once I’m done, once tomorrow is over, I think a lot more emotion will really come out,” he says. He has shown signs of mortality in London, falling to fourth in the opening 400m individual medley, and earning his first Olympic silver medal in the 200m butterfly. But his legacy will continue to ripple in the sport, with the likes of Franklin, Ledecky (who is 15) and others who now see the sport of swimming featured in prime time television and swimmers assuming the celebrity most often reserved for basketball players and baseball icons. “When I grew up, swimming was never broadcast on prime time, never seen on the cover of magazines,” says Phelps’s older sister Whitney, who was also a swimmer and brought her daughter Taylor, 6, to London to watch Phelps. “People have watched him grow as well as watched the sport grow.”
“Michael is the first Olympian I ever met when I was six, right before I started swimming,” says Ledecky. “So to hear a ‘good luck’ from him before the race was really cool.” Cool enough to win gold, and, more importantly, as the London organizers are hoping, inspire a generation.