RIO DE JANEIRO – Michael Phelps brought the curtain down on his incredible swimming career with his 23rd Olympic gold medal — and his fifth of the Rio Games — as the United States beat Britain and Australia to win the men’s 4×100-meter medley relay on Saturday.
Phelps, who has insisted this week that he will not return to compete at the Tokyo Games in 2020, teamed up with Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian to win the final race of the Rio Games swimming competition, touching the wall in a new Olympic-record time of 3 minutes, 27.95 seconds.
“Just walking to the pool tonight, I think everything started coming out and my emotions really started surfacing,” said Phelps, who retires with an all-time best total of 28 Olympic medals.
“Walking down the warmup pool deck, I started to get choked up. That’s it. I’m definitely a lot more emotional than I was in 2012 and I think that’s a good thing. Being able to look back on my career and say we’ve been able to accomplish everything we wanted. I think it was a challenge getting back to this point but this is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted.”
Britain, led by force of nature Adam Peaty, claimed silver in a time of 3:29.24, ahead of Australia in 3:29.93. Japan finished fifth in 3:31.97.
Rio Games double backstroke champion Murphy got the U.S. off to the perfect start when he set a new 100-meter backstroke world record of 51.85 seconds in the first leg.
“That’s something I’ve been going for for a long time,” said Murphy. “And to do it in probably one of the most-watched races in history, with it being Michael’s last race, that’s something I’m going to cherish forever.”
But 100-meter breaststroke gold medalist Peaty wiped out Murphy’s lead in the second leg to send British teammate James Guy into the water 0.41 seconds ahead of Phelps.
Phelps, who swam the butterfly leg of the race, stayed cool to outduel Guy and give Adrian the lead heading into the anchor leg, however, and the freestyle double bronze medalist held his nerve to come home and extend the Americans’ stranglehold over the event.
The U.S. has won the 4×100 medley relay in every Olympics since 1960, except the 1980 Games which the Americans boycotted.
Phelps’ domination of the entire sport has been almost as complete.
“This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming and try to do something that nobody else had ever done,” said Phelps. “And it turned out pretty cool.
“I’ve lived the dream come true. It’s something that I wanted for so long. And being able to cap it off is just the perfect way to finish.”
Japan made a sluggish start to the race but gained a glimmer of hope when Takuro Fujii made up ground and sent Katsumi Nakamura into the anchor leg in fourth place.
But Japan was too far behind to make a serious push for the podium, missing out on a medal four years after taking silver at the London Olympics.
“It’s frustrating, but I’m grateful to everyone that supported us to the end,” said breaststroker Yasuhiro Koseki, who swam the second leg. “We had a team that had a serious chance of winning a medal but we have to accept that we were fifth and use that in the future.”
The U.S. women claimed the first leg of their country’s relay double earlier in the evening in a time of 3:53.13.
The U.S. team of Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel made a tentative start before gradually taking command, finishing ahead of Australia (3:55.00) and Denmark (3:55.01) to claim the 1,000th Summer Games gold medal in their country’s history.
“It’s such an honor to win the 1,000th medal,” said Vollmer. “It really makes you reflect on all the previous generations of U.S. athletes and the amount of work they put in. It makes us feel like we’re part of that legacy.”
Pernille Blume swam the anchor leg for Denmark shortly after winning the individual women’s 50-meter freestyle gold medal.
Blume finished in a time of 24.07 seconds ahead of Manuel (24.09) and Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus (24.11) to win Denmark’s first swimming gold since 1948.
“The gold medal means so much but also to the team because we had such an amazing energy,” said Blume.
In the day’s other final, Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy won the men’s 1,500 freestyle in 14:34.57, beating Connor Jaeger of the U.S. (14:39.48) and Italian compatriot Gabriele Detti (14:40.86).
“It was hard — the Olympic final — so it was really hard to go out and give your best,” said Paltrinieri. “It was really hard to go out and give your best, but I really wanted to win. I put all my heart into it and it was a really beautiful thing.”