Michael Phelps won gold in dominant fashion Thursday night in the 200 IM, besting his longtime competitor, and fellow 30-something, Ryan Lochte, to complete a back-to-back-to-back-to-back performance in the event, a feat that'd never been accomplished in an Olympic pool and had been done just twice before in any sport (Al Oerter and Carl Lewis did it decades ago in the discus and long jump, respectively).
Phelps was behind by 0.01 seconds at the halfway point, then went into a breaststroke leg that was blazing fast by Phelps standards. He hit the final wall first, then brought home the final 50 so fast he won by more than two seconds, a staggering margin for a race that was expected to be another Olympic nail-biter. The breast-to-free 100 meters were some of the finest the 26-time medalist has ever swum which is obviously saying something.
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Overall though, just another night, another gold and another record for the greatest Olympian who ever lived.
Who knew there were records Phelps had yet to tie or break? With every major medal-count mark to his name, he's dabbling in the longevity record books now in this, his fifth Olympics. With his win earlier in the 200 fly, Phelps became the oldest man to win an individual swimming gold, breaking the 96-year-old record held by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, who was one year younger than Phelps when he won the 100 free at the 1920 Antwerp Games. Clearly, the Baltimore native is now the oldest to ever win two individual golds too.
Besides him standing on top of the podium, the constant in every Phelps 200 IM win, from Athens to Beijing to London to Rio, had been Lochte standing next to him on the blocks. Though he got the best of Phelps in the greatest race of their rivalry – the 200 IM in the 2011 world championships – Lochte could never get the upper hand when it mattered most. Despite this lead at the 100, Lochte faded, as he'd done in his individual events at trials. Behind Phelps' four golds, Lochte finished silver-bronze-silver-fifth, the final result likely to be a disappointing end to a grand career.
Phelps finished well ahead of the silver medalist, 21-year-old Kosuke Hagino, who won the 400 IM, an event both Phelps and Lochte had won during their illustrious Olympic careers.
The way everything's shaken out and progressed over the past 12 years, Phelps asserting dominance in the 200 IM feels like a natural. But imagine it's 2004 and you're back in Athens when the streak started. You're told Phelps will win one of his golds (100 fly, 200 fly, 200 IM, 400 IM) four-straight times and have to guess which event it'll be. The answer would have been a no-brainer: the 200 fly was Phelps' baby. He owned it for a decade, right until Chad Le Clos upset him in 2012. (Phelps triumphantly regained the title over the chatty Le Clos this week.) But if not the 200 fly, the clear thought is that it would have been the 400 IM, which Phelps won by 3.5 seconds in Athens and also dominated in Beijing. Once again, that “lost” 2012 Olympics (which still turned out pretty good) felled him. He promptly quit the most grueling race on his program.
That left the 200 IM (probably his fourth-best event at the time) and the 100 fly as Phelps' four-peat chances. After Thursday, it's one down, one to go. Phelps is set to swim the 100 fly Friday after winning the previous three golds by a combined of 0.28 seconds. (Combined!) It'll be the toughest individual race he'll have in Rio.
It's astonishing to celebrate Phelps' 22 gold medal, just as astonishing as it's been for the last dozen he's won, each of which successively set an Olympic record. But it's a bittersweet win too. This was likely Ryan Lochte's final race and though no one is owed anything in sports – particularly in a sport as straight-forward as swimming – he sort of deserved one. Lochte, who has the second-most medals of any American Olympian ever, only beat Phelps in one of their six Olympic races and that was in an event in which Phelps didn't even medal.
He's spent so many years in Phelps' shadow, stepping out of it briefly in 2012 but only after embracing the dumb jock narrative that played well during the Games but quickly became tired afterward. His trials were a disappointment as he only qualified in the 200 IM but did earn gold on the 4×200 freestyle relay.
No one should, or will, cry for Ryan. He has that runner-up title for most decorated American Olympian (at least until Katie Ledecky passes him) and has something on his buddy no one else does: Lochte still holds the 200 IM world record he set when beating Phelps in that 2011 world-championship showdown. It ain't gold, but it's not a bad consolation.