Michael Phelps Takes Back the Gold Medal That Mattered Most

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

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By David Rieder.

For all of the different events Michael Phelps has raced—and won—over the years, one of them always meant more than any other: the one in which he made his first Olympic team and Olympic final, the one in which he broke his first world record, the one in which he won his first World title.

Phelps dominated the 200 fly for a decade, winning one World title in 2007 by a full three seconds while breaking the world record by more than a second and a half. A year later, as part of his eight-gold-medal performance in Beijing, Phelps won gold and broke the world record with his goggles filled with water.

Phelps faced his challenges along the way, from Laszlo Cseh to Takeshi Matsuda to Wu Peng. But when it mattered, he beat all of them.

That is, until the Olympics in London. Phelps was aiming to become the first man to win three straight gold medals in one event, and even with Matsuda and Chad le Clos closing hard, Phelps would surely get his hand on the wall. He always seemed to do that.

But this time, he did not.

Le Clos won gold in 1:52.96, and Phelps settled for silver in 1:53.01. And even though Phelps would rebound and end up winning gold in each of his four remaining races at those Games, he seemed resigned to going into retirement having lost his grip on the 200 fly.

But then Phelps came back.

“What happened four years ago stuck with me,” Phelps said. “That was a frustrating race.”

When he finally returned to the 200 fly in 2015, Phelps was driven to put on a show. He showed up to U.S. Nationals in August of 2015 and posted the fastest time in the world all year, 1:52.94. It was vintage Phelps, a version that had been seen only sparingly since his legendary performance in Beijing in 2008.

The next day, at the World Championships in Kazan, le Clos opened his mouth. After winning the World title in the 100 fly in 50.56, he quickly informed the press that Phelps needed to be quiet since he had not swum so fast in six years.

Back in San Antonio, Phelps promptly dropped a 50.45.

As the two prepared to meet again in the 200 fly in Rio, le Clos did not seem to get the message—he kept seeking Phelps’ attention.

Phelps had struggled in the 200 fly most of the season, fading badly down the last 50 at U.S. Olympic Trials, even if he held on to win the event. He entered the Olympics ranked sixth in the world at 1:54.84.

And le Clos looked ready to blast a big one, especially after he won the silver Monday night in the 200 free in 1:45.30. An hour later, as he and Phelps prepared for their 200 fly semifinal, le Clos intentionally performed a shadowboxing routine right in Phelps’ face.

Under his hood, Phelps scowled—and so was born the “Phelps Face.” The swimmer who beat him for gold four years ago—and hadn’t stopped running his mouth in the years since—was showing off in front of him. If he needed any more motivation to recapture that gold medal, he had it.

Phelps got through the semifinals as the No. 2 qualifier, and in the final, he took the race out hard. Le Clos was in pursuit, but Phelps led by almost seven tenths of a second at the 150.

And then, Phelps hit the proverbial brick wall.

“The last 10 meters were not fun,” Phelps said. “I thought I was standing still.”

Le Clos, too, had faded, but the threat was unseen—up in lane seven, Japan’s Masato Sakai, a full decade Phelps’ junior, was coming on strong. As he came into the wall, Phelps was caught between strokes and made the split-second decision.

As he did in the 100 fly in Beijing, Phelps chose the half-stroke. And once again, it worked. Phelps won gold in 1:53.36, and Sakai settled for the silver in 1:53.40.

Phelps admitted that it wasn’t until the award ceremony that he realized how close the finish had been.

“I don’t care about the time,” Phelps said. “I’m just happy I was able to win.”

Phelps got up on the lane line, wagged his finger and flexed. The full spectrum of emotions came through until he received his gold medal, and cameras caught a tear running down Phelps’ face as he raised his arms to the thunderous applause of the crowd, soaking it all in.

“That event was kind of my bread-and-butter,” Phelps said. “That was the last time I’ll ever swim it. Having that come to an end—it’s weird.”

Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach and the head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic team, called the swim his second favorite of Phelps’ Olympic gold medals, behind just his first, the 400 IM in Athens 12 years ago.

“It doesn’t get old watching him win,” said Maya DiRado, fresh off a medal-winning performance of her own in the women’s 200 IM. “You think he’s seizing up on his last stroke, and you turn around, and he did it. He got his hand on the wall because that’s just what he does.”

Phelps crafted the storybook ending to his journey with the 200 fly, but the night’s business was not yet complete, as Phelps was assigned anchor duties on the American men’s 800 free relay.

Phelps was gassed—he admitted to asking teammates Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte to spot him a big lead—but he gutted out a 1:45.26 split to bring the Americans home for their fourth-straight Olympic gold in that relay.

When the night was done, Phelps had added a few more accomplishments to his résumé—he tied Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most individual Olympic medals ever—with a chance to add two more in the next three days—and his win in the 200 fly made him the oldest ever individual gold medalist in swimming. He won 21 gold medals in his career, and still, no one else has more than nine.

“That’s a lot of medals,” Phelps said. “It’s just insane. It’s mind-blowing to me to think about when this all started and the things [Bowman and I] have been able to do together in the sport.”

After Phelps finished his press conference, he received applause from the packed room of journalists as he scampered out of the room, his focus on the impending preliminary swim in the 200 IM just hours away. But the final story on Phelps at these Games has still yet to be written—he has the 200 IM, 100 fly and 400 medley relay still to go, and with the form he’s shown so far, it would not be at all surprising to see him win all three.

“He has proven that he is easily the greatest swimmer of all time with his performances,” Dwyer said. “Once that guy gets hot, you can’t really stop him.”

Click here to view full results from day four finals.

17 Comments

17 comments

  1. Deeanne Stark

    So much emotion tonight! U have made us all proud on so many levels !!!!!!! Go MP

  2. avatar
    Alice

    We are so proud of you, Michael! Thank you for all your work representing America!

  3. avatar
    Deb

    Thanks for inspiring the rest of us. Much appreciated. Thanks!

  4. avatar
    Steven

    The best there ever was!

  5. avatar
    Carlton West

    Who cares? The people of Rio are sick of that smarmy jerk.

    • avatar
      Thom

      Oh you sad little man! The remark reflects someone who has accomplished nothing in life.

    • avatar
      North West

      Apparently, everyone except you cares. Jealousy makes you smaller than small, and your comment speaks to your character.

  6. avatar
    Kweku

    Like a shark going for its prey! Love this guy!

  7. avatar
    Tony

    Sorry America but Michael Phelps belongs to the world of swimming.
    We’re all proud of his achievements!
    24 Golds?

    • avatar
      North West

      True.

  8. avatar
    Kurt W

    Greatest swimmer of all time, greatest Olympian of all time. Makes me very proud to be an American.

    • avatar
      John

      How can you be “proud”? You accomplished nothing! He can be very proud but you are just “proud” of where you were born (of which you had no say)? Pathetic. There are lots of Americans. Do they make you “proud” too? Trump? Serial killers?

      • avatar
        Mike

        You should look up the definition and uses of the word “proud” before you go off on another rant. That someone makes you proud has nothing to do with accomplishing anything personally. I’m also proud to be an American. You are nothing but a grumpy person who thinks they know everything and trolls the internet looking for people to bully, knowing you don’t have the stones to say it to someone’s face. I wonder what your reaction was when your parents, friends or significant others ever said they were proud of you. Of course, maybe no one has ever had a reason to tell you that.

      • avatar
        Eric

        I don’t believe he said anything about being proud of Trump. And since has not stated such you should try to keep your comments logical, rather than dissociative and tangential (you can look these words up in a dictionary. An American dictionary.)

      • avatar
        Sheri

        John,

        It is sad, for you seem to be a very unhappy person or grumpy as Mike said. I’m sure if you think about it a little more, you will discover something that will give you a wee bit of happiness! Michael Phelps has made me a very proud and happy American this week, and I thank him! In fact all the American athletes, win or lose, have made me proud just by making the US Team.

  9. avatar
    michael

    A symbol of Americans that ALWAYS rise to the occasion…Make America great again? BITE ME!!

  10. avatar
    Cynthia Nirenblatt

    What a great read and what a great capture of the emotions, not just of last night, but over the past few years. When I saw him crying and fighting back the tears with laughter at his friends and family, I knew then that he knew he had accomplished more than just winning gold. He accomplished the medal of beating himself in his own race.

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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