LONDON — Michael Phelps arrived at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 a gawky 15-year-old with braces and big dreams. He went home bragging to friends about meeting Mia Hamm and Vince Carter. Twelve years later, he is a multimillionaire swimming icon and will leave the London Olympics as the most decorated Olympian of all time in any sport.
He anchored the U.S. to a gold medal in the 4×200 freestyle relay on Tuesday night, his 15th career gold medal and 19th overall, surpassing former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who collected 18 medals between 1956 and 1964. Her record stood 48 years, and it is a safe bet to assume Phelps’ mark will be tough to top.
Phelps has won 15 golds, two silvers and two bronzes. If he were a country, he’d be ranked between Jamaica (13) and Argentina (17) for most gold medals.
The Olympic Aquatic Center crowd gave him a rousing ovation, and Phelps hung on the red lane rope taking in the moment, a huge smile on his face. He had a two-second lead when he took over the final leg, and led the team to an easy victory in 6:59.70. Ryan Lochte swam leadoff, and the other legs were swum by Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens.
Phelps’ mood improved considerably from earlier in the night, when he was out-touched by South African Chad le Clos in the final of the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps’ signature event. Phelps settled for a silver medal, and the fact that he lost the race at the finish was surprising because he is known as a master at the wall. The American was vying to become the first swimmer ever to win the same individual event in three consecutive Olympics.
He tossed his goggles into the water and walked past reporters without talking after the race.
The result was reminiscent of the 100m butterfly final in Bejing 2008 when Phelps somehow took the gold medal from Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by just one hundredth of a second by lunging on the final stroke.
His mistake on Tuesday caused him to lose by .05 seconds. Takeshi Matsuda of Japan took bronze.
Le Clos was as astounded as anyone by the result.
“It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little boy. I just wanted to race Phelps in the final and I’ve beaten him. I have beaten the greatest swimmer of all time. I can’t believe it,” said le Clos. “Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”
In the women’s 200-meter freestyle, American Allison Schmitt of Canton, Mich., won the gold medal in Olympic record time (1:53.61) and 17-year-old Missy “The Missile” Franklin didn’t make the medal podium. Schmitt was 1.97 seconds ahead of France’s Camille Muffat, who took the silver in 1:55.58. Australia’s Bronte Barratt won the bronze medal in 1:55.81, beating Franklin by 0.01.