Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Seventh at the turn, an Olympic champion at the end.
Make it 17 gold medals for Michael Phelps.
Was there any other way to go out in the final individual race of his career?
With those long arms whirling through the water, Phelps was next-to-last when he touched the wall at the far end of the pool in the 100-meter butterfly but in a familiar position when he made the touch that counted Friday – his name atop the leaderboard, a smile on his face, another gold medal around his neck.
“I’m just happy that the last one was a win,” Phelps said. “That’s all I really wanted coming into the night.”
He claimed his third gold of the London Games and 17th of his career, adding to an already absurd record total that should be twice as much as anyone else by the time he swims the final race of his career, the 4x100 medley relay tonight.
The Americans are huge favorites in a race they never have lost, and it’s unfathomable to think the Phelps era could end with anything less than a performance that puts him atop the podium one last time.
In what might be viewed as a symbolic changing of the guard from America’s retiring swimming star to the next big thing, 17-year-old Colorado native and Regis Jesuit High School senior-to-be Missy Franklin set a world record in the 200 backstroke, her third gold in London, just minutes before Phelps took center stage at the Olympic Aquatics Centre. Another American teen, 19-year-old Elizabeth Beisel, claimed the bronze in that race.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” said Franklin, who had dedicated her Olympics to victims of the theater shooting not far from her Colorado home. “In that last 25, I knew I was giving it everything I had because I couldn’t feel my arms and legs, and I was just trying to get my hand to the wall as fast I could.”
Right after Phelps was done, 15-year-old Katie Ledecky – the youngest member of the U.S. team – nearly broke the world record to win gold in the 800 freestyle, denying Britain’s Rebecca Adlington a repeat before her home fans. Adlington settled for bronze in a race Ledecky dominated from start to finish, falling off record pace only in the last 15 meters.
But no one has dominated like Phelps, who increased his career overall medal total to 21.
“He’s the king of the Olympics Games,” said his butterfly rival, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic.
Even though Phelps didn’t go as fast in the final as he did in the semifinals, he actually won by a relatively comfortable margin compared to his two previous Olympic wins in the 100 fly: four-hundredths of a second over Ian Crocker in 2004, then one-hundredth of a second – the closest race possible – against Cavic at the Beijing Games four years ago.
That was the victory that kept Phelps on course to win a historic eight gold medals in China.
This was about going out in style.
Phelps slammed the wall in 51.21 seconds for payback against the guy who edged him in the 200 fly, Chad le Clos. No gliding into this finish, the move that cost Phelps a gold in their first meeting.
Le Clos finished in 51.44, patting Phelps on the shoulder after tying for silver with Russia’s Evgeny Korotyshkin. Cavic tied for fourth in 51.81, not even close to Phelps in their final meeting.
“I cannot be compared to Michael Phelps,” said Cavic, who also plans to retire after the London Games. “I’m a one-trick pony.”
France won its fourth gold at the pool, its best showing ever, as Florent Manaudou – younger brother of 2004 gold medalist Laure Manaudou – shocked defending Olympic champion and world-record holder Cesar Cielo of Brazil in the 50 freestyle.
Manaudou touched in 21.34 and pounded the water out in Lane 7, then got a big hug from his sister as soon as he climbed from the pool. Cullen Jones of the United States took silver in 21.54, while Cielo was left with bronze in 21.59. Anthony Ervin, the 2000 Olympic champion who came back from an eight-year retirement, finished fifth after getting off to a poor start.
“I’m tired,” said Cielo, still only 25 but the world’s top sprinter for the last four years. “Age takes its effect.”
Franklin and Ledecky are just getting started.
“Missile Missy” has lived up to her nickname, completing a sweep of the backstroke events in a time of 2 minutes, 4.06 seconds, easily eclipsing the record of 2:04.81 set by defending Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry at the 2009 worlds in a now-banned bodysuit.
Russia’s Anastasia Zueva took silver, a body length behind Franklin in 2:05.92. Beisel put a second American on the medal podium in 2:06.55, while Coventry finished sixth.
“I could never dream for it to happen like that,” said Franklin, who also has a bronze in her first Olympics and one more race to go in the 4x100 medley relay.
Ledecky seemingly came out of nowhere to claim a spot on the U.S. team, and she nearly took out a world record in her first Olympics. She was ahead of Adlington’s record pace (8:14.10) from the Beijing Olympics until right at the end, finally tiring just a bit for a time of 8:14.63.
Not to worry. The teenager still has plenty of time to go faster. Mireia Belmonte Garcia of Spain was far behind for silver in 8:18.76, while Adlington held on to take bronze at 8:20.32. She burst into tears on the medal stand as the crowd of 17,000 chanted “Becky! Becky! Becky!”
There was no catching Ledecky.
“Michael’s and Missy’s races really got me pumped,” the youngster said. “I really wanted to see what i could do to represent the U.S.”
Ledecky settled for crushing a hallowed American record, Janet Evans’ mark of 8:16.22 set in Tokyo on Aug. 20, 1989 – nearly eight years before Ledecky was born.
“I figured I was going pretty fast,”Ledecky said.
Manaudou showed that his big sister wasn’t the only champion swimmer in the family, denying the Americans a sweep of the night’s events. Jones did manage to take the first individual medal of his career, and vowed to come back even stronger at the 2016 Rio Games.
“I was dreaming in gold, and I really wanted to get first, but it wasn’t in the cards this time,” he said. “I’ll have to live with silver, and that’s enough motivation for another four years.”
Ervin seemed flustered by a slight delay in the start because of a woman yelling in the stands. He was slowest off the blocks – a crucial miscue in the one-lap dash – and never caught up. He was timed in 21.78, leaving him 0.19 behind Cielo for a spot on the podium.
Still, it’s been quite a journey for the eclectic swimmer, who shared the 50 free title with Gary Hall Jr. at the Sydney Olympics, won a world title the following year, then stunningly walked away from the sport at age 22. Ervin was gone for eight years, selling off his gold medal to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, playing in a band, finishing college and never staying in one place for too long.
Just one year after coming back, the 31-year-old nearly got another Olympic medal.
“Being here is my own form of redemption,” he said. “What’s next? I’m going to have a nice dinner with my friends and family, people I really care about. Without them, this could not have happened.”