LONDON -- You'd think Michael Phelps would have this routine down by now. After listening to the Star Spangled Banner from atop an Olympic podium for the 17th time in the last eight years, he made a rookie mistake. Gathering for pictures with fellow medalists Chad LeClos of South Africa and Evgeny Korotyshkin of Russia, who tied for second behind him in the 100 butterfly, Phelps stood to the left of both instead of smack in the middle, the customary spot for the gold medalist. When he realized his mistake, he laughed and shifted into position. Then he laughed again.
At this point in his career, 24 hours from the end of it, Phelps wasn't in a mood to dwell on mistakes of any kind. His 100 butterfly, his final individual event, hadn't been perfect: he was seventh at the turn, and that turn, said his coach, Bob Bowman, "was mediocre but good enough." The finish wasn't textbook either. But it didn't cost him, as it had in the 200 butterfly earlier in the week, when LeClos out-touched him on the last stroke, and it didn't give his coach a near heart attack like his 100 fly finish in Beijing, when he came from behind and a made a chopped last stroke that beat Milorad Cavic of Serbia by .01 second for his seventh gold. And his time of 51.21, while considerably slower than the world record of 49.82 he set in Rome in 2009, was a comfortable .23 ahead of LeClos and Korotyshkin.
"I don't want to complain that I was slower or made a bad turn or finish," said Phelps afterward. "I'm just happy the last one was a win. That's really what I wanted coming into tonight. This one was a bigger margin of victory than the last two combined. We can smile and be happy."
As historic as Phelps's last individual race was -- he won his 17th gold and 21st Olympic medal overall -- it wasn't the most impressive race of the night. Shortly before Phelps got on the blocks, 17-year-old Missy Franklin won the 200 backstroke, her favorite event, in a world record time of 2:04.81, which lopped .75 seconds off the mark set by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry in 2009 in a high-tech suit. Franklin, who set the 200 backstroke short course world record in Berlin last fall, led from start to finish, extending her lead to a few body lengths before she touched nearly two seconds ahead of Russia's Anastasia Zueva. Afterward Zueva gave Franklin a kiss on both cheeks, and teammate Elizabeth Beisel, the bronze medalist, gave her a long hug over the lane line. "Do you know how fast you just went?" Beisel said. "Two-oh-four is insane!" Franklin, who now has three gold medals -- including two individuals -- and a bronze, says she was just aiming to get a best time. "That just happened to be a world record.".
As Franklin accepted congratulations, Katie Ledecky, a 15-year-old high school sophomore-to-be from Bethesda, MD, sat in the ready room before the 800 freestyle final watching the whole thing. "It was really quiet in the ready room, but I was ready to scream when I saw Missy's race and then Michael's," she says. "I kept it to myself and used it as extra energy."
As soon as she hit the water, Ledecky set a withering pace that left defending Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Adlington, who won the bronze behind silver medalist Mireira Belmonte Garcia of Spain, chasing her bubbles. For more than 700 meters Ledecky stayed on world-record pace, only slowing down in the final 20 meters. Her time of 8:14.63 broke the oldest American record on the books, Janet Evans's 1989 mark of 8:16.22. "She is unbelievable," said Adlington, "and she has her whole career ahead of her. I definitely think she'll break my world record at some point, but I'm glad it's still on the board for now."
Despite her youth, Ledecky is very familiar with Evans's legacy. "She the best distance swimmer in the U.S.," said Ledecky of the 40-year-old five-time Olympic medalist, who attempted a comeback this year. "She's been someone we all looked up to. To break that record is really cool."
The three golds by Franklin, Phelps and Ledecky, along with the silver medal won by Cullen Jones in the men's 50 free, brings the American swimming medal count up to 14 golds and 28 medals overall. The U.S. women, who won just two gold medals in Beijing, already have seven golds, and they will be favored to win the medley relay for the first time since 2000 Saturday night.
The American men, who have never lost that relay, will be even more heavily favored. Phelps, in what he promises will be the final race of his career, will be swimming the butterfly leg. It's hard to imagine that he won't have one more opportunity to step to the top of the podium, hear the national anthem and get that photo thing right.