RIO DE JANEIRO – Michael Phelps used to do this as if he were a metronome: Swim fast, climb quickly out of the pool, don podium gear, listen to national anthem with game face on, wave to crowd. Repeat.
This week at Olympic Aquatics Stadium, the swims are still fast – otherworldly fast for a 31-year-old. But the climbs out of the pool are labored, the national anthem brings tears, and the crowd adulation is savored longer.
The only thing ticking with regularity are all the “lasts” Phelps is checking off. Among them on Thursday was this: It was the last time he’ll swim against his most lasting and most worthy rival, U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte.
Phelps took the lead in the breaststroke leg – usually his weakest stroke – of the 200-meter individual medley and finished in one minute, 54.66 seconds to Japan’s Kosuke Hagino’s 1:56.61. China’s Wang Shun won bronze in 1:57.05. Lochte finished fifth.
“Nothing surprises me any more with that guy,” Lochte said of Phelps. “He’s a phenom. It’s unbelievable.”
The gold is Phelps’ fourth at this Games and fourth consecutive in the 200 IM. Only four other Olympians – Danis sailor Paul Elvstrom and U.S. track and field athletes Ray Ewry, Al Oerter and Carl Lewis – have a four-peat in an individual event.
Phelps has one more individual event left to swim in Rio – the 100-meter butterfly Friday – in which he could also four-peat. His last chance to medal likely will come Saturday in the 4x100-meter medley.
“You just have no idea how difficult it is for anybody to win an Olympic gold medal,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman. “I know Michael’s done it so frequently, it really is hard to even put it in perspective.”
Phelps now has 22 Olympic golds and 26 medals overall. He is laying claim to so many Olympic superlatives that he is re-writing the record books from a time before record books.
His victory Thursday gave him his 13th individual Olympic title, breaking a first-place tie with Leonidas of Rhodes, who won 12 individual titles in the stadion, diaulos and hoplite races at the Ancient Olympic Games (the 164, 160, 156 and 152 BC editions).
More than two millennia after the reign of Leonidas, Phelps is surging past swimmers a decade younger than him (Hagino is 21). At the same time, he is marveling with Lochte, one year his senior, over how they could swim so many events, including the grueling 400-meter individual medley, at previous Olympics.
Phelps won the 400 IM on the opening night of swimming at the 2004 and 2008 Games. Lochte won it in 2012.
Lochte and Phelps stood side by side on the 200 IM podium at the previous three Games, as Lochte won silver in 2004 and 2012 and bronze in 2008.
“Getting out of the pool might take a little more energy,” Phelps said of how he feels in 2016, “and it might be a little bit harder, but it’s just as sweet standing on top of the podium listening to the national anthem play.”
After crying and then laughing from his podium perch on Tuesday, when he won the 200-meter butterfly, on Thursday he was all tears, even though he had a six-minute turnaround to his 100 fly semifinal.
“That’s the first time he’s ever done that,” Bowman said of Phelps’ emotion. “I always say, just build a fire up in you while you’re hearing the national anthem and he’s usually like a machine on those. But that was nice to see.”
Vicki Michaelis is the John Huland Carmical Chair in Sports Journalism & Society at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She covered six Games as USA Today’s lead Olympics writer from 2000-2012.