Michael Phelps became the most decorated athlete in Olympic history as the U.S. won the men’s 800-meter freestyle relay, earning the swimmer his record 19th medal.
Phelps swam the last leg of the final in London last night to win his record-extending 15th gold medal. His overall medal tally is one more than former Soviet Union gymnast Larissa Latynina.
“I just started to smile with 25 meters to go,” Phelps told reporters. “It was a cool feeling.”
Phelps surpassed Latynina an hour after losing the 200-meter butterfly final, an event he’d dominated since 2003. The American led the whole race before trying to glide to the wall at the end, only for Chad le Clos of South Africa to pass him and win by 0.05 seconds.
“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses,” the 27-year-old Phelps said. “There are times when I sort of become lazy coming into the wall, and that came out at the moment that I needed it the most.”
Phelps, who will retire after the London Games, won the 200-meter butterfly at the past two Olympics and at the World Championships in 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2011. He set the world record at the 2009 World Championships in Rome.
The manner of the defeat was similar to the way Phelps won the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Olympics. Milorad Cavic of Serbia led the final and lunged for the wall underwater, while Phelps swung his arms through the air to win by 0.01 seconds.
Le Clos said that race was going through his head during last night’s final, which he won in 1 minute, 52.96 seconds.
“It sounds crazy, but I actually thought I was Michael after that last turn,” Le Clos, 20, told reporters. “I felt I can try and do something special here.”
Phelps used the defeat, which he found “a little frustrating,” as motivation for the relay final.
“I don’t know anyone who hates losing more than Michael Phelps,” Dara Torres, who won 12 swimming medals in five Olympics for the U.S., said in an interview last week.
The U.S. relay team of Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer, Ricky Berens and Phelps defended its title by winning in 6:59.70. France took the silver medal and China got the bronze.
Lochte, 27, clocked 1:45.15 to give the U.S. a lead of a full body length over Germany’s Paul Biedermann after the first leg. Dwyer and Berens extended their team’s advantage before Phelps swam the anchor leg to loud cheers from the capacity 17,500 crowd at London’s Aquatics Center.
“I wanted a big lead, as big a lead as possible,” said Phelps. “I knew those guys would be fast.”
Phelps said he may find it difficult getting to sleep knowing that no one has won more Olympic medals.
“There are a lot of emotions in my head right now,” he said. “This has been an amazing ride. It shows that hard work does pay off.”