LONDON – The first truly transcendent sports moment of the London Olympics took place around 9 p.m. Tuesday.
That’s when Michael Phelps touched the wall to complete Team USA’s triumphant 4×200-meter freestyle relay at the Aquatics Centre, giving the “Baltimore Bullet” his record-breaking 19th Olympic medal.
The man who had 239 footnotes on his Wikipedia page shortly after that historic race is now the winningest Olympian of all time, topping gymnast Larisa Latynina’s mark of 18. (Latynina collected nine golds, five silvers and four bronze while competing for the Soviet Union in the 1956 Melbourne Games, 1960 Rome Games and ’64 Tokyo Olympics.)
“It was a cool feeling,” Phelps said of the record. “And I’m sure I’ll be able to put it more into words when we get through the meet and farther down the road, but, like I said, there are a lot of emotions that are going through my head right now.”
And this opinion now reigns supreme: in the minds of many, Michael Fred Phelps holds the official title of “greatest Olympian.”
To reach the pinnacle of his sport, Phelps has said he embraces this philosophy: “In my world, it takes a lifetime of dedication to get one-hundredth of a second ahead,”
Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Breens swam in succession and handed Phelps a nearly 4-second advantage entering the final 200 meters before he jumped into the pool. At that point, France, which shocked the runnerup U.S. in the 4×100 on Sunday, was chasing the Americans in pursuit of gold, and anchor Yannick Agnel swam 1 minute, 43.24 seconds (the best 200-meter split for all 32 participants) the rest of the way. (Angel had won the 200 freestyle in nearly identical fashion — 1:43.14 on Monday — so those details were fresh in Phelps’ mind.)
“I told them (my teammates) to give me the biggest lead that they could,” Phelps admitted.
In the relay, Phelps completed his 200 meters in 1:44.05, while the Americans finished the race in 6:59.70, followed by France in 7:02.77 and China in 7:06.30.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling and a great way to end the night,” Phelps said.
With Agnel showcasing his world-class speed once again, Phelps had no margin for error.
“If I didn’t get a big enough lead, then who knows what would have happened,” he said.
“I thanked those guys for helping me get to this moment,” Phelps added.
Phelps has a stunning collection of 15 golds, with two silvers and two bronze. And he’s still scheduled to compete in the 100 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 4×100 medley before his swimming career comes to an expected end.
The 27-year-old has said he’ll retire after the London Games, but the temptation to return to — or remain in — the spotlight may be too tough to ignore.
Regardless of what the future has in store for the lanky legend, he’s played a remarkable role in popularizing the sport in the United States and beyond, turning elite-level swim meets into must-watch TV for more than the just the most rabid sports fans.
Bob Bowman, a Team USA assistant coach who has guided Phelps’ career since the beginning, recognized his talents years before he was a household name.
“I worked with him when he was 11 years old,” Bowman recalled, “and even then he was super competitive and had something different.
“I knew he was going to be something special.”
But this special? That’s beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Bowman, though, appreciates getting to see the more personable side of Phelps in his third Olympiad. His all-out quest for eight golds in Beijing, which shattered Mark Spitz’s super-seven gold haul from the 1972 Munich Games,
“They see him as a little more human and no longer a machine,” Bowman said, describing how Phelps’ teammates view him. “In Beijing, it was Michael, the coaching staff and the 50-meter pool. Here (in London), he has got to know people and the athletes have been able to get to know him.”
In the crowded news conference, one reporter asked Phelps if the meet so far has debunked the notion that he’s not Superman after all.
“I’ve been a human being my whole life,” he said with a smile.
Maybe so, but those around him marvel at what he’s accomplished since making his much-heralded Olympic debut at the 2004 Athens Games.
“We never talked about him breaking that record,” said Ryan Lochte, who swam the first 200 meters of the relay to give the United States nearly a one-second lead over Australia.
“We just focused on what we needed to do, to get our hand on the wall first. We’ll celebrate with him after. It’s unbelievable, what is it, 19? That’s unheard of.”
A little more than an hour earlier, with an electric atmosphere filling the arena, Phelps tied Latynina’s mark, placing runnerup in the 200 butterfly behind South Africa’s Chad le Clos. The winner completed the race in 1 minute, 52.96 seconds and Phelps, who glided into the wall to end it, fell to second. He had led for the entire race, with a resurgent Le Clos, third after 150 meters and 0.32 seconds off the pace, pulling ahead right at the end. Phelps was only 0.05 seconds — a whisker, really — from a victory (1:53.01).
Takeshi Matsuda, the fastest swimmer in the semifinal heats, took the bronze for the second straight Olympiad, finishing in 1:53.21
“It was a good race for me,” said Matsuda, Japan’s swimming captain. “Obviously, I was disappointed I didn’t get the gold, but I tried my best.”
As he stood on the victory podium after collecting his gold medal, Le Clos couldn’t hold back the tears when South Africa’s national anthem played.
“Phelps is my hero and I love the guy,” Le Clos said later. “To beat him, I can’t believe it. You can’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest day of my life.”
Phelps exhibited good sportsmanship after Le Clos’ triumph in the 100 fly, as evidenced by his comments after the race.
“I know Chad and he’s a hard worker and he’s really talented. I can’t be too upset,” said Phelps. “It’s great to see someone so amazing and talented come out and do well.”
Phelps said he won’t second-guess himself for gliding into the wall to finish the 200 fly, saying “those are things that I worked on in workouts. . . . There are times where I would sort of come out lazy into the wall, and that came out at the moment that I needed it the most. I understand that and I realize that, and I’m OK with it. It’s the decision that I made for so many workouts and so many finishes in the pool.
“You know, this still is fun for me. I love being here. I watched the finish (on video) and Chad was there in the right place at the right time, and he got his hand on the wall first . . . and after that I tried to kind of shut that out of my head and put it behind me and get ready for this relay. I knew how important that was for the team.”
Also Tuesday, China’s Ye Shiwen won swimming’s short-distance version of the all-around title, dominating the field in the women’s 200 individual medley. She beat runnerup Australian Alicia Coutts by 0.58 seconds with an Olympic record time of 2:07.57.
Allison Schmitt of the United States obliterated the field en route to a 200 freestyle gold, clocking an Olympic record 1:53.61. France’s Camille Maffat grabbed the silver in 1:55.58, while Australia’s Bronte Barratt earned the bronze in 1:55.8.1. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, the defending Olympic champion, was fifth in 1:56.73.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Schmitt said, while admitting she was zone into her lane — No. 5 — only. “I couldn’t see anything other than the racer next to me, so I didn’t know where I was or what the time was.”
She added: “I just tried to keep focused. . . . Mike (Phelps) and I were joking before the race and he said as soon as you get on the blocks it’s time to start focusing.”
Pellegrini reacted to her finish this way: “It’s difficult for you to understand it, but I am the same one I was in Shanghai (at the 2011 world championships) and in Beijing. Sport is like that, you need to accept your defeats.”
In the men’s 200 breaststroke semifinals, Kosuke Kitajima qualified fifth overall with a time of 2:09.03 in the second semifinal. He established the Olympic record (2:07.64) in Beijing, where he completed his second double gold medal haul in the 100 and 200. He placed fifth in Sunday’s 100 final.
The 29-year-old Kitajima, the oldest of 16 semifinalists, received a soothing pep talk from Japan coach Norimasa Hirai early Tuesday, which set the tone for a solid day for the veteran swimmer.
“My coach gave me a calming speech before competition,” Kitajima told reporters after the morning heats. “His advice stabilized my mental condition. I wanted to grab (the momentum) and prepare for the final.
In the evening, he said that “I was relaxed and (the result) was what I expected.
“If I have a chance to win the gold, I’ll try my best to go get it.”
“For the final I want to get my best record and start with good feelings,” Kitajima said.
The 200 breaststroke final is the first race on Wednesday night’s swimming program, slated to begin at 7:30 London time.
Analyzing what lies ahead on Wednesday in the first scheduled final of the night, Kitajima admitted the longer race suits him more than the 100.
“The 200 meters is better for me” he said.
To reach the final, his effort was not unlike a fish gliding through the bay on a stormy day.
“I swam with breathing rhythm in my mind. I swam as myself,” Kitajima said.
Ryo Tateishi, who swam in the first semifinal, qualified with the seventh-fastest time (2:09.13).