RIO DE JANEIRO — Only two days remain in the most impressive farewell tour in sports history, a show that keeps getting better.
On a night when a new American star emerged—20-year-old Simone Manuel, surprise gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter freestyle—Michael Phelps was again the galvanizing figure at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. He added another historic achievement to his legacy on Thursday night by crushing a strong field in the 200-meter individual medley to win his fourth gold medal of the Games. Phelps became only the third athlete, after alltime greats Al Oerter in the discus and Carl Lewis in the long jump, to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics.
Phelps took the blocks amid thunderous roars for him and the 30-year-old Brazilian in the lane to his right, Rio-born Thiago Pereira, who was out to win the home country’s first swimming medal of the Games. To Phelps’s left was his longtime U.S. rival and friend, Ryan Lochte, and one lane farther over was pre-Olympic favorite Kosuke Hagino, 22, who—like so many others swimming in these Games—had grown up idolizing Phelps. Four years ago in London, Hagino had nevertheless denied his hero a medal in the 400 IM by edging him for third place behind winner Lochte and silver medalist Pereira.
Even other swimmers were eager to see what would happen. Earlier in the day, Phelps’s close friend, training partner and fellow U.S. co-captain Allison Schmitt had talked about how she had never seen a happier smile on Phelps than after his 200-butterfly win on Tuesday night—but made clear that he was as intensely focused as ever. She couldn’t wait to sit in the stands and watch the final. “When he has his mind on something, he’s going to accomplish that,” said Schmitt.
The arena thundered with noise as Pereira took the lead in the opening butterfly leg, with Phelps in second. On the backstroke Lochte moved past both, but turned just .01 ahead of Phelps and Pereira. Then came the leg that broke open the race.
In 50 meters of breaststroke, Phelps raced to a lead of nearly .4 over Pereira. He flip-turned for home and continued to pull away. Phelps touched the wall in 1:54.66, the seventh-fastest clocking ever. Runner-up Hagino finished far back at 1:56.61 and bronze medalist Wang Shun of China finished sin 1:07.05.
The medal was the 26th of Phelps’s career and his 22nd gold, but this was no time to savor it. In less than half an hour he had to swim a semifinal in another event, the 100 butterfly. It turned out to be quite a half-hour.
There already had been plenty of other action in the pool. After Rie Kaneto of Japan opened the evening by winning the women’s 200 breaststroke ahead of Russia’s Yulia Efimova, first-time U.S. Olympian Ryan Murphy won the 200 backstroke for his second gold medal of the Games. Murphy, 21, who swims for Cal, moved to the lead just before the halfway point and never gave it up. He finished in 1:53.63, comfortably ahead of world champion Mitch Larkin of Australia.
The 6’3” Murphy became the sixth swimmer to sweep the men’s 100 and 200 backs at an Olympics and the first since the U.S.’s Aaron Piersol in 2004. Piersol had sent him a text before the Games encouraging him to extend American dominance of Olympic backstroke events. Murphy is expected to team up with Phelps and two others on Saturday in pursuit of a closing-night gold in the 400-medley relay.
As Phelps prepared for his 100-fly semi, the women’s 100-freestylers took to the blocks for what figured to be a tight final. The favorite was Australia’s Cate Campbell, the world-record holder and top qualifier. The field also included 100-butterfly gold medalist Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, 16-year-old Canadian phenom Penny Oleksiak—already a triple medalist in Rio—and Campbell’s younger sister, Bronte, the world champion.
Oh, and in lane three, Simone Manuel.
The rising star from Stanford had turned in a sparkling 53.11 swim in the semifinals, but as a rookie Olympian facing so many tough rivals, she seemed unlikely to seize gold. Cate Campbell seemed in control of the race when she hit the halfway mark in 24.77, with sister Bronte next and Manuel third in 25.24.
But Manuel, whose smiling presence outside the pool belies her fierce competitiveness in it, is known for her strong finish. She charged for home, as did Oleksiak, who had anchored two Canadian relay teams to medals earlier in the Games.
They touched the wall together. Exactly. The scoreboard flashed 52.70 for both of them—a dead heat for the gold medal. That hadn’t happened in an Olympic swim final since Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr. deadlocked in the 50 freestyle in Sydney in 2000. Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer also had finished in a tie for gold in the women’s 100 free at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think it could have been any better,” Manuel said afterward. “I mean, I just met Penny, like, today but she’s awesome. And to have the two young ‘uns win the sprints means a lot to swimming.”
Oleksiak's share of the victory made her the first athlete born after Jan. 1, 2000, to win an individual-event gold medal in the Olympics, Winter or Summer. Her fourth medal broke the record for the most by any Canadian athlete at any Summer Games.
While Oleksiak carries a well-known sports name—her brother Jamie is a defenseman for the NHL’s Dallas Stars—Manuel could soon become one. She is one of two African-American women on the U.S. swim team (there has never been more than one at past Games) and hopes to use her success to bring more minorities into the sport.
Her parents in Sugar Land, Texas, made sure that all their children learned to swim at a young age, and Simone fell in love with the pool and began competing. She was watching on TV at home in 2008 when Phelps won eight gold medals, and it inspired her own Olympic dreams—not an uncommon occurrence. Phelps has won more medals for Team USA than he even realizes.
When the women’s race was over Phelps received his gold medal in a ceremony on the pool deck, took it from around his neck and dashed under the stands to prepare for his 100-fly semi. Minutes later he was cruising through the water on his way to a second-place finish in that race and a spot in Friday night’s final.
In that race, he has a chance to make history again. Never mind the daunting feat of winning the same event at four consecutive Olympics. Having done that once already, Phelps, winner of every 100-free gold medal since Athens, could be the first pull of a four-peat twice.
The show goes on.