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History maker: Phelps bagged the two medals he needed to become the most decorated Olympian
Just when it seemed the Baltimore Bullet was in danger of becoming the silver bullet, Michael Phelps secured one more gold medal to become the greatest Olympian in history last night.
‘There are a lot of emotions going through my head but this is very special for me,’ he said after collecting his record 19th medal. ‘I told the guys when we were on the podium that I wouldn’t be able to sing because I was already a bit teary.’
Phelps' medal tally
The evening had not started well for the American, as he lost the 200 metres butterfly on the touch to South Africa’s Chad le Clos to leave him with his second silver medal of the Games.
But then came the 4x200m freestyle relay and with it the opportunity to collect the all-important 19th in style.
The Americans had suffered a shock defeat by the French in the shorter freestyle relay, Yannick Agnel catching and passing Ryan Lochte on the final leg to leave Phelps and his team-mates bitterly disappointed.
On this occasion, however, there was no stopping them. Lochte, going off first on this occasion, established a commanding lead that was never threatened and Phelps brought the team home with the second quickest leg of the night. In a repeat of the previous relay, only Agnel was faster.
Phelps appeared to be in control earlier in the evening in what has long been his signature event.
Pipped to the post: Phelps narrowly missed out on the gold medal in his first race of the night - but made no mistake in the second
There have been five world titles as well as two in the Olympics, and had he won again last night he also would have become the first swimmer to win the same event at three successive Games.
He led this race from the start and appeared unstoppable as he turned into the home straight. But as Phelps began to tire, so Le Clos began to close, the South African winning by just five hundreths of a second.
Phelps paid tribute to his team-mates after going one better in the relay. ‘In the huddle I thanked them for helping me get to this moment,’ he said. ‘I’d told them to give me a big lead and they did. I would have loved to have won the fly too but I swam a good time. I would have liked to have had a better outcome in the fly. I was on the receiving end of getting touched out.
‘Chad swam a great race. I’ve got to know him in the last year. He’s a tough competitor and a racer. It’s obviously my last one and I would have liked to win. In the relay I just wanted to hold on in the last leg.’
Le Clos was in tears on the podium. He said: ‘This is a dream of mine, I have always said Michael Phelps was my hero.
Gold standard: The 4x200 freestyle team pose with their gold medals
‘I remember turning in the last 50 and just looking at him underwater and realising this is my hero, it’s crazy. I can’t describe how I felt. In the last 25 metres, I can’t explain what came over me. I’ll have to try to defend my title in four years time, but to beat Michael Phelps is exactly what I have been dreaming of since I was 12.’
Phelps hates losing and even after 15 Olympic golds, 26 world titles and 39 world records, the individual defeats he has suffered here will hurt him. He referred to his performance in the 400m individual medley on the opening night of the Games as a ‘crappy, horrible race’. He finished in a distant fourth to the impressive Lochte.
This is not the Phelps of old, but on occasions at these Games he looks like he has suddenly rediscovered his old form. He was superb in that 4x100m relay, just as he cut through the water with that same power and grace on his freestyle relay leg last night.
Stars and Stripes: The winning 4 x 200m freestyle team celebrate their gold performance
But whatever happens in the events he has yet to contest, he will retire at the end of these Games as the most successful Olympian of all with a record that is sure to stand for many years. After all, Larisa Latynina’s previous mark of 18 had stood since 1964.
Last night there was also success for Phelps’s training partner, Allison Schmitt. Second in the 400m freestyle to Camille Muffat, Schmitt gained revenge last night over 200m by finishing almost two seconds ahead of the French girl with a marvellous swim that brought her both gold and an Olympic record.
Schmitt touched in 1min 53.61sec, with Muffat taking the silver and Great Britain’s Caitlin McClatchey coming home in seventh.
Gold standard: Le Clos was the big winner - taking gold in the 200m butterfly