LONDON – As Michael Phelps walked onto the deck for the last individual race of his Olympic career Friday, not more than a half a pool’s length away Missy Franklin was talking to TV reporters about the world record she set minutes before.
The scene was an historical crossroads for swimming, certainly in the USA and perhaps beyond.
While Phelps swims his last Olympic races, the young U.S. swimmers – Franklin especially – have shown in London that he’s not leaving a void in his wake.
The 17-year-old Franklin won her third gold and fourth overall medal Friday in spectacular fashion, finishing the 200-meter backstroke in world record two minutes, 4.06 seconds. The record is her first in a long-course (50-meter) pool.
“I had the time of my life out there,” said Franklin, the first U.S. woman to win the 200 back since 1972. “It’s my favorite event.”
Later in the evening, 15-year-old Katie Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle in eight minutes, 14.63, breaking Janet Evans’ American record in the event, which had stood since 1989.
“The sport is going to be fun to watch,” said Phelps, 27, who is retiring after this Olympics. “I’m excited to see it from the outside more than anything, to see what these guys continue to do to change the sport. With the American guys and the young girls who are coming up, they’re going to fill our shoes easily.”
While Franklin reveled in her victory Friday, Phelps unreeled another sublime win of his own, his last in an individual Olympic race.
In an event that has seen some of his most dramatic finishes, he won the 100-meter butterfly Friday by a comfortable margin, closing fast to go from seventh at the turn to first to the wall in 51.21 seconds.
South African Chad le Clos, who beat Phelps earlier in the week in the 200-meter butterfly, tied for second with Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin in 51.44.
The victory gave him a second Olympic three-peat. On Thursday, he won the 200-meter individual medley for a third straight Olympics. No other man has won the same swimming event at three Olympics.
Friday’s victory also added to his all-time medal marks, now at 17 golds and 21 overall.
Usually one to analyze every segment of his race, Phelps let this last individual victory be just that.
“I don’t even want to complain about going slower or having a bad turn or finish,” he said. “I’m not even going to say that. I’m just happy that the last one was a win. That’s all I really wanted coming into tonight.”
His eyes grew misty on the medal podium, as did those of his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who was watching the medal ceremony from the rubdown room.
“It’s been emotional for me the whole way,” Bowman said. “I think he’s just getting into it now. I’ve been emotional the whole week.”
Bowman was feeling something entirely different while watching Franklin blow away the field in the 200 back.
“Déjà vu, right? It feels like the old days (with Phelps). And Katie, same kind of thing. It’s so great to see all these young kids coming up,” Bowman said.
As a 15 year old at his first Olympics, in 2000, Phelps competed in one event, the 200 fly. He finished fifth. Within months, he set his first world record and won his first world title in the 200 fly.
Franklin has made much more of a splash in her first Games. She is competing in seven events, including Saturday’s 4x100-meter medley relay.
What Phelps did at the 2004 Olympics, where he won six gold and two bronze medals, and at the 2008 Olympics, where he won a record eight golds, made such an ambitious program seem within reach, Franklin said.
“What he’s done is incredible, and it’s helped people kind of re-think the impossible and re-think what they can do and how they can push themselves,” she said. “When someone does that for you, it just makes them such an incredible role model and inspiration.”
For one more day, she will have Phelps close at hand, able to observe his pre-race calm, his on-deck focus, his post-race celebration. Like Franklin, Phelps will finish his 2012 Olympics with the 4x100 medley relay.
Then he will walk away, leaving Franklin and her peers to continue the churn that he created.
“There are so many members of the team this year, and of the national youth team, that are coming up that are going to help carry on this incredible generation that we’ve had before us,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be extremely hard, because they have left unbelievable footprints in swimming history.”
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.