LONDON -- About 20 meters from the finish of the men's 4x200 free relay, U.S. anchor Michael Phelps felt a smile break across his face. In all the races he had won by a wide margin in his long career, that had never happened. But he had never had a race like this, when the medal waiting at the end would break a record that had stood for 48 years. When Phelps hit the wall in 6:59.70, three seconds ahead of runner-up France, he shouted in triumph, slumped over the lane line, and in what might have been another first, let himself bask in the moment. After four finals in London he finally had a gold medal, but more significantly he had 19 Olympic medals, more than anyone in history. "I'm kind of at a loss for words," he said later. "Being able to do something no one has done before, that's what I've always said I wanted to do."
For Phelps it was a triumphant end to a night that had started off with shock and disappointment. His first race was the 200 butterfly, the event that is more than any other his signature: He made his Olympic debut in the 200 fly in 2000 as a 15-year-old (he came in fifth), and he set his first world record in it in March of the following year. (He has broken it seven times since and never relinquished it.) He hadn't lost a 200 fly race in a major international meet in 10 years. In Beijing, he had won it even after his goggles filled with water halfway through the race. This one, more than any other individual event on his London agenda, seemed like a lock.
After holding the slimmest of leads through 150 meters, Phelps finally started to pull away with about 25 meters to go. But South Africa's 20-year-old Chad Le Clos, who calls himself Phelps's "biggest fan," stayed within striking distance. As Phelps's glided on the final stroke, Le Clos lunged, hitting the wall .05 seconds ahead in 1:52.96. The finish was eerily similar to the dramatic end of the 100 fly in Beijing, when Phelps came from behind to outtouch Serbia's Milorad Cavic by .01 second for his seventh gold medal. "It's not too much fun to be on the other side of it," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "He just timed it wrong."
On the podium Le Clos couldn't contain his tears. "(Michael) has always been an inspiration to me," he said later. "So, you know, being next to him in the final was an honor itself and I just wanted to try to beat him. When it actually happened, I couldn't believe it. It was like a dream come true."
With his second-place finish, Phelps had once again failed to become the first man to win an individual Olympic swimming title three times. But he now had 18 Olympic medals, to tie Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, and with the 4x200 free relay looming, he could still make history before he left the pool for the evening. He shook off his anger and disappointment and refocused. Knowing he'd be the U.S. anchor going head-to-head with France's breakout star Yannick Agnel, who had overtaken Ryan Lochte in the last leg of the 4x100 free relay and won the 200 free by a wide margin, he had a special request of his teammates, Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens: "Get me a big lead."
Lochte, who had suffered disappointments in the previous two sessions (a silver in the 4x100 free relay and a fourth-place finish in the 200 free) dove in at the gun and swam like a man with something to prove. When he hit the wall at 1:45.15, Dwyer dove in with nearly a second lead over Australia. Dwyer extended the lead to three seconds, Ricky Berens, on the third leg, to four. In the anchor leg Agnel made up about a second, but it wasn't enough. At the wall, Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian in history, grabbed a mouthful of water and spouted it into the air. On the pool deck he gathered his teammates and thanked them for helping him get to this moment. "We didn't really have much to say because we're usually thanking him," said Berens.
Despite Phelps' disappointment in the 200 fly it was a good night for the American team: Phelps' teammate and good buddy at North Baltimore Aquatics, Allison Schmitt, won the 200 free in an Olympic and American record of 1:53.61 (Missy Franklin, swimming in her third of seven events, missed a bronze medal by .01 second) and Caitlin Leverenz won a bronze in the 200 IM.
The gold went to 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, whose jaw-dropping, world-record performance in the 400 IM on Saturday -- after lagging in the first three legs, she blew past American Elizabeth Beisel by swimming a final 50 free that was faster than Ryan Lochte's final 50 in the men's 400 IM -- had sparked something of an international incident. Speaking to the Guardian, John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, had called her performance "disturbing" and "unbelievable", stopping just short of accusing her of doping. That provoked angry responses from China, including a comment from her father, Ye Qingsong, who told the Chinese news portal Tencent that "the western media has always been arrogant and suspicious of Chinese people."
In the 200 IM, Ye swam a great race, but not one so great it's likely to stoke the controversy. Third after the breast stroke, she again made her move in the freestyle, accelerating past Alicia Coutts of Australia and Leverenz to win in an Olympic record time of 2:07.57. Asked directly in the press conference if she used performance-enhancing substances, Ye said, "Absolutely not."
And so the big story of the night remained Phelps and his historic moment. As hemounted the awards podium, he told his teammates he wouldn't be singing the national anthem with them. "They are too many emotions, I'm not going to be able to get a word out,'" he said. After all he has done for the U.S. team, he can be given a pass.