Thursday night, he became the first male swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics — the 200-meter individual medley. It may be a rather nuanced title, full of qualifications, compared to those he already has after his name, such as the most-decorated Olympian moniker earned Tuesday night. But for the swimmer who has long said he wanted to be the first Michael Phelps, as in singularly himself and not referenced to any other, he embraces it.
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Swimming the medley in 1:54.27 seconds, Phelps beat that worthy rival of his, Ryan Lochte, by .63 of a second, with Laszlo Cseh of Hungary winning bronze.
The 200 IM is one of the races that Phelps had owned, starting in 2003, when he set the first of what would become a total of eight world records in the event. In the past several years, though, Lochte started making inroads: In 2009, he won the event in the world championships in Rome and then again last year in Shanghai, where he set the current world record of 1:54.00.
But on Thursday, the calendar didn’t do Lochte any favors. He had to swim two difficult races, coming in third in his speciality, the 200-meter backstroke, earlier in the evening before having to face Phelps in the 200 IM.
That was Lochte’s final race of the Games. While it was not an unsuccessful meet by any means, with Lochte winning two golds, two silvers and a bronze, he didn’t put the full stamp of ownership on it as he had hoped — and that much of the media had hyped. He emerged farther from Phelps’ shadow than ever before, but the Baltimore swimmer still remains a frequent reference point. On his last night at the Games, reporters frequently asked Lochte how it felt to have raced the Phelps for a final time.
Lochte, though, spoke warmly about the friend and competitor he’s been swimming against for eight years. Lochte had started chipping away at Phelps’ dominance, even winning gold on the first night of competition, in the 400-meter individual medley that Phelps failed to even medal in. Both say they’ve improved as swimmers from having to battle one another off time after time.
Lochte's two medals Thursday give him 11 over his Olympic career, placing him second among all male Olympians and trailing only — who else — Phelps and his 20, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“He is the toughest racer I’ve ever had to deal with. The rivalry we’ve created has been tremendous for the sport. Our friendship that we’ve created is awesome,” Lochte said. “I’m going to miss him, racing him. ... It’s going to be kind of weird not having him with me anymore.”
The two were relaxed after they were done swimming for the day. When they spoke about one another, it had the feel of toasts that they might give, at a wedding or a farewell party. But there are still two more days of competition — for Phelps, that is.
After winning the 200 IM Thursday night, Phelps swam the semifinal of the 100-meter butterfly, finishing first going into Friday’s final. Saturday, he will swim his final race of these Games, as well as his competitive career, the 400-meter medley relay.
And then, that’s it. “No more competitive swimming,” he said, giving a director’s “cut” sign with his hands to underline how definitively his answer should be taken. “There will not be any masters [events].”
Still, this week has been bittersweet, with Phelps noting “last” times every day.
“I’ve been saying before I go into the ready room, ‘This is my last 100 fly, or this is my last semi-final of the 200 IM, or this or that,” Phelps said. “We’re just checking everything off.
“Once it’s all over, it’s going to hit me emotionally. Watching my mom and sisters up in the stands, I kind of spot them after every race, I know for my mom especially, it’s very emotional for her,” he said of his mother, Debbie, watching as she has from the start with daughters Hilary and Whitney.
Phelps said he was going to enjoy watching the next wave of swimmers, especially Chad le Clos, the 20-year-old South African swimmer who beat him in Wednesday’s 200-meter butterfly. If the old Phelps, an intense, single-minded competitor, might have followed this second-place finish with much plotting on how he would get him the next time, this Phelps seemed to enjoy seeing his younger self in le Clos.
“We were both sitting in the ice tub together,” Phelps said of how he and le Clos recovered from their race. “He was like, ‘Man, my breaststroke in the IM is so bad.’ I can remembering saying the exact same thing.”
Le Clos, who grew up idolizing Phelps and watching his races over and over again, enters the 100 butterfly final second to him.