Editorial Coverage Sponsored By FINIS
By David Rieder.
It was to be a showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, the last time the two titans would ever go head-to-head before Phelps entered his second retirement. And on top of that it was to be their one chance to clash with the world’s next great IMer, Kosuke Hagino, who already had a gold medal in the 400 IM from earlier in the meet.
But in the end, the men’s 200 IM final—once again—was all about Michael Phelps.
Phelps trailed Lochte by one one-hundredth of a second at the halfway point and then pulled ahead on the breaststroke. Turning for home with a lead of four tenths of a second, Phelps exploded.
“I was in a hurt of pain going home the last 50,” he said. “Just forced myself to stay underwater and spun my wheels as fast as I could.”
He pulled away in typical Phelps fashion, splitting 27.70 for the freestyle leg—faster than anyone else in the field. He touched in 1:54.66, the eighth-fastest in history and almost two seconds ahead of silver medalist Hagino. Phelps had only gone quicker three times in his career, not once since coming back to the sport in 2014.
When Phelps captured gold in the 200 fly Tuesday night, he pulled himself up on the lane line, raised his arms to the crowd and wagged his finger. He wagged his fingers again after the 200 IM—four of them.
Four straight Olympic gold medals. Of course, Phelps had been the only man to win three straight in the same event after he captured both the 200 IM and 100 fly in London four years ago. He succeeded in winning his third where so many legends—Alexander Popov, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Grant Hackett and Kosuke Kitajima—had fallen short.
Four years ago, it never seemed that Phelps would be back for Rio to take his shot at four straight, insisting that he was done for the sport forever—so much so that this retirement tour feels like déjà vu. Phelps is now 31 years old, but in comparison to the shell of himself that showed up in London in 2012, this version of Phelps is downright vintage.
“My body doesn’t feel like an 18-year-old, but I’m having fun like an 18-year-old,” he said. “I enjoyed training like an 18-year-old. Before, I was always looking for shortcuts—I can skip a week here and get by, or I don’t need to do that butterfly set.”
The road he took was not without his bumps, but the months that Phelps called the most difficult of his life helped refuel his desire to compete and his drive for greatness.
“I knew when I first came back that it wasn’t going to be an easy process,” Phelps said. “But if I wanted the results then it was something that I had to do. And I think I was at a point in my life where I was ready to do that and wanted to do that.”
The journey back to the highest-level of the sport had its own ugly moments—Phelps in particular recalls one in-season meet in Charlotte where his results were so poor that he wondered why he was even bothering with the comeback.
But then glimpses of the greatest-of-all-time began to peek through the cracks, most notably at U.S. Nationals in San Antonio last August, when Phelps threw down the fastest time in the world in three different events. The last piece—the confidence—was back in place.
And then Phelps returned to the Olympic Games like he had never left. His 1.95-second margin of victory in the 200 IM was almost a half-second greater than the average margin of his previous three. All four of Phelps’ strokes looked clean, crisp and controlled.
“I think the biggest thing for me this meet is I’ve been able to finish like I wanted to,” Phelps said. “I’ve been able to accomplish things that I dreamt of.”
Phelps began his comeback with a set finish date in mind, and now that moment is squarely in sight. As tears dripped down his face as he stood on the gold medal podium for the 22nd time, Phelps knew such moments were fleeting.
“I only have to put a racing suit on two more times after tonight, and I only have to warm down one more time after tonight,” he said. “Tonight’s was my last 200 ever—that’s a very exciting one.”
Three more races remained on Phelps’ Olympic docket after his 200 IM final, all of them involving 100 meters of butterfly. One of those three came up quickly as Phelps navigated the brief turnaround from the 200 IM final to the 100 fly semifinal.
Swimming in lane five in the first of two semis, Phelps turned dead-last at the 50 but came home as he so often does. He did not touch out the field—actually, he was out-touched by one one-hundredth and finished in his heat—but he got himself a lane for the final.
Phelps then watched as Singapore’s Joseph Schooling blasted a 50.83 in the second semifinal, the top time in the world and one that could give Phelps a hard time Friday night.
Phelps has a challenge in front of him, but he has faced his fair share of those and never backed down from one. The 100 fly gives Phelps one last chance to add to his amazing total of 13 individual gold medals—a number that Phelps admits he cannot wrap his head around.
“I’m sure I will be able to at some point in my life, but right now I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s been a hell of a career.”
And for two more nights, that career will continue. But Saturday night, after the 400 medley relay final, the curtains close—this time, Phelps says, for good.