Michael Phelps, with a record 20 medals, is nearing the end of his Olympic career in triumph after a slow start.
It took Phelps, 27, four races to win gold in his fourth and final games. He finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley on the opening day, the first time he’d failed to reach the podium since swimming at the Sydney Games as a 15-year-old in 2000.
His first gold of 2012 came in the 800-meter freestyle relay on July 31 when a trio of teammates gave Phelps a commanding lead. He extended his medal haul to 20 last night with his 16th gold as he led from start to finish in the 200-meter individual medley, becoming the first male swimmer to win the same race at three straight Olympics.
“I fell short in the first couple of events,” Phelps said in a news conference. “To be able to do something no male has done in the sport is pretty cool.”
His win in the relay allowed him to break the mark of 18 total medals set by former Soviet Union gymnast Larissa Latynina.
Yesterday’s race was the last duel between Phelps and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, who took Phelps’ 400-meter individual medley crown and had talked about dominating in London just as Phelps had done in Athens and Beijing, where he won six and a record eight golds, respectively.
The two Americans started side by side, with Phelps in lane three and Lochte in four. Phelps took command from the start and was as much as 0.22 seconds ahead of the pace needed to break his own world record after the butterfly and backstroke portions of the race.
Upon touching first, Phelps, who also has two silvers in London, rested against the wall, smiled broadly and turned to speak with Lochte, who finished second.
“He’s the toughest competitor that I’ve ever had to deal with,” Lochte told reporters.
Lochte, who turns 28 today, had 31 minutes before the 200-meter medley after the final of the 200-meter backstroke, in which he gave away a lead and ended up with a bronze medal. The gold went to U.S. teammate Tyler Clary, 23.
The loss to Phelps ended Lochte’s Olympic run. He told reporters the U.S. swim coach had left him off the 400-meter medley relay tomorrow.
“I’m done,” said Lochte. “It’s my birthday and for the first time in years, I don’t have to swim.”
For Phelps, there’s one more individual race. He’ll swim the 100-meter butterfly today after coming from behind to win his semifinal in 50.86 seconds five minutes after stepping off the podium with his medley gold.
“It was the last semi ever, we’re kind of chalking up the last of certain things and tonight was a tough turnaround, but I’m very pleased with going 50.8,” Phelps said. “It’s my fastest time this year in the race. The final will be a good one.”
Lochte leads the individual medal standings at the games with five, including two golds. The total was “a little above average,” he said, after arriving in London and repeatedly saying that it was “my time.”
“I definitely wanted to get golds in everything,” Lochte said. “I can’t be too disappointed because I’m bringing home five Olympic medals to my country. I’m pretty happy for that.”