RIO DE JANEIRO — In a race that was billed as a Michael Phelps vs. Chad le Clos showdown, it never came to that.
Phelps dealt the final blow to the shadow-boxing South African in the second half of the men’s 200-meter butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. And le Clos — the defending Olympic champion — could only look over the lane line in desperation as Phelps swam away with the win in 1:53.36.
The legendary American won the 200 fly at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, but lost it to le Clos in London.
“I was pretty fired up after that race,” said Phelps of the 200 fly win. “Having the 2012 200 fly, once I watched it, it kind of stuck with me. This is the race that I really wanted tonight. I really wanted that one back.”
By the finish, le Clos wasn’t even on the podium. Japan’s Masato Sakai finished second in 1:53.40, with Hungary’s Tamas Kenderesi in third, 1:53.62. Le Clos finished fourth.
With his fiancé Nicole bouncing baby Boomer in her arms in the stands, Phelps added his 20th Olympic gold medal to his collection (and 24th overall). It was also his 14th Olympic medal won in an individual event, tying him with Russian Larisa Latynina, who won 14 individual Olympic medals in gymnastics in the 1960s. Phelps is now the oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic gold medal.
And the night was only beginning for 31-year-old Phelps. Just shy of midnight in Brazil, he anchored the men’s 4x200 freestyle to another gold medal.
While Phelps is a man who usually swims for time, not for medals, it was all about the gold in the 200 fly. He owns the eight fastest times in the 200 fly, including the world record of 1:51.51, set at the 2009 world championships.
“I don’t care about the time,” Phelps admitted after the race, “just happy I was able to win.”
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The 200 fly is the one event that Phelps has swum in all five of his Olympic Games. And his win in Rio showed how far he has come.
In 2000, he finished fifth. He won the 200 fly in 2004 and 2008, despite his goggles filling with water in the race in Beijing. Then he earned the silver medal in the 200 fly in London. It was symbolic of his reluctance to be competing at the 2012 London Games.
Phelps came to Rio with “unfinished business,” and the 200 fly was part of that business.
“When I came back, I told Bob [Bowman, his coach] how bad I wanted that 200 fly,” said Phelps. “It was a mission, and the mission was accomplished.”
“It’s remarkable, not just his age but everything that’s transpired since London and before London and the whole totality of that,” said Bowman. “Tonight, that 200 fly was really great. Somebody asked me where that ranks, and I ranked it number two. The first [Olympic medal in 2004] will always be my favorite, that’s definitely number two.”
Phelps’s performance so far in Rio — three Olympic gold medals — is burnishing an image that had become tarnished after his ambivalence in London followed by his second drunk driving arrest in 2014. After alcohol rehabilitation and reconnecting with his estranged father, among other personal achievements, Phelps claimed that he had rediscovered his love of swimming.
It has shown in Rio.
With his infant son in the stands — asleep in his mom’s arms under red, white and blue headphones — Phelps has dived into the pool for each heat, semifinal and final with such passion and fervor, it’s as if he has finally realized that he is swimming for more than himself. He seems to have finally willingly taken on the mantle of team leader, fan favorite — and Olympic icon.
“It was going through the last 16 years,” said Phelps when asked what he was thinking on the podium. “That event was my bread and butter. That was the last time I’ll ever swim it. Having that come to an end, it’s weird, it’s crazy to think about. Just being able to see the No. 1 next to my name again one more time in the 200 fly, I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
After receiving his gold medal from the 200 free, he walked around the pool deck, laughing and waving with stars-and-stripes bedecked fans in the stands, soaking it all in and looking genuinely happy to be here. He climbed into the stands to kiss Nicole, his mom Debbie and Boomer.
At the end of the night, Phelps added to his gold rush after anchoring the men’s 4x200 freestyle race to the gold medal.
“Michael’s swim [in the 200 fly] just got me pumped up,” said Townley Haas, who swam the fastest leg of the relay. “It was just awesome to watch that, especially with all the words flying around and the ‘Phelps face.’”
Pictures of Phelps’ stern, snarly game face have been flying around social media, along with videos of le Clos shadow-boxing.
Phelps now has 21 Olympic gold medals (25 total) — and counting.
“I’m excited to see what he’ll do the rest of the meet,” said Conor Dwyer, who led off the relay for the U.S. “Because once that guy gets hot, you can’t really stop him.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.