Michael Phelps had his 19th Olympic medal, more than any athlete has ever won.
Forty-eight years ago in Tokyo, a Soviet gymnast named Larisa Latynina won the last of her 18 medals. Phelps had equaled Latynina’s record earlier Tuesday with a disappointing silver in the 200-meter butterfly, his signature event. But shortly after 9 p.m. London time, before a shrieking sellout of 19,000 at the Aquatics Centre, Phelps and three teammates aimed to add to his collection.
Given a four-length lead by Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens, Phelps swam an anchor leg of the 4x200 relay that became more of a coronation than a competition for his first gold of these Olympics.
“I think the biggest thing I always said was, anything is possible,” Phelps said nearly 90 minutes after the record. “I put my mind on doing something no one has ever done before, and nothing was going to stand in my way.”
Phelps stood atop a medal podium for the 15th time with the Star-Spangled Banner playing, as he had eight times in Beijing and six times in Athens (where he also won two bronze). But this time meant more, he said. He told his teammates he couldn’t just mouth the words and smile through it like he usually does.
“Sorry, boys, I’m not going to be singing it with you tonight,” Phelps said he told Lochte, Dwyer and Berens. “My eyes were getting watery. It was emotional.”
One of the most poignant tributes to Phelps’s legacy came earlier in the evening form the man who had ended his decade of dominance in the 200 butterfly. South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who just out-touched Phelps at the wall, spent most of his news conference talking about the thrill of beating the man he had idolized since being a sixth-grader watching Phelps perform in Athens.
“Sounds crazy, but I thought I was Michael that last turn,” le Clos said. “He’s everything to swimming. I can’t believe what just happened.”
This is Phelps’s legacy: He has so inspired 12-year-old kids that they’ve now grown up to beat him.
Beyond the 19 medals, beyond the sustained ability to win, the greatest Olympic champion ever deserves commendation for something else: showing up here, knowing he could not possibly duplicate the indomitable performance of four years ago.
Phelps knew this wasn’t going to be Beijing. But he still felt secure enough about his accomplishments to risk the legend of the swimmer who seemingly would not lose.
He has been beaten twice in individual races, including a fourth place in the 400 individual medley on Saturday, but don’t characterize him as the fallible champion who just can’t keep up the young bucks anymore. Rather, celebrate an athletic hero unafraid to show his vulnerability, because he knows all he can possibly give is his best. Finally, Phelps seems of this earth, more man than myth.