LONDON - The finish line seems to be rushing at Michael Phelps now. He should be used to that.
With the end of his Olympic career in sight, Phelps is winning medals, reaching milestones and for perhaps the first time enjoying every aspect of competing, from the joy of victory to the camaraderie of rivalry to the irony of refusing to take himself so seriously anymore while the sports world carves his bust.
Thursday night at the Aquatics Center, Phelps won his first individual gold medal of the 2012 Olympics. His victory over teammate Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley made Phelps the first male swimmer to win an individual event in three consecutive Olympics.
Then he summarized what it means to be a championship swimmer.
"It's really cool,'' he said of the accomplishment.
"It really hurts,'' he said of the race.
The victory gave Phelps 20 Olympic medals, two clear of the field, and 16 golds, with two races remaining. After he beat Lochte on Thursday, Phelps turned to the scoreboard, took in the result and expressed no emotion.
"That's because he's getting ready for the 100 fly,'' said his coach, Bob Bowman. "He always has that in the back of his head. That's what he does better than anybody, do the second event after the really hard first one.''
Less than half an hour later, he won his heat in the 100-meter butterfly, registering the best time in the world this year.
His rivalry with Lochte ended on Thursday. Lochte has no more races in the Olympics, and Phelps will retire at the end of the Games. As one-sided as their rivalry has been, Lochte whipped Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley to start the Olympic swimming competition, and Lochte has won 11 Olympic medals, the second-most for a male.
When the two were preparing for the 200 IM, Phelps admitted he's counting down the days. "I said to him when we were in the ready room, this is the last 200 of the meet and our last 200 together,'' Phelps said. "So we were just joking around, laughing about it. Ryan has been probably one of the toughest competitors I've ever swam against.''
Before the Olympics, Lochte called this "my time.'' Thursday, after taking silver behind Phelps and a bronze in the 200 backstroke, he called his Olympics "a little bit above average.''
That's true only if Phelps is the standard. "I can't be too disappointed,'' Lochte said. "I am coming home to my country with five Olympic medals, so that's something to be proud of.''
Lochte's inability to live up to Phelps, like Phelps' disappointment in failing to medal in one race and being overtaken for gold in another, highlights the difficulty of dominating an Olympics the way Phelps did by winning eight golds in Beijing.
Along with the sheer endurance required while recovering from one race in time to qualify for another is the emergence of quality swimmers from around the world.
"Anyone that doesn't realize what Michael did in Beijing isn't paying attention,'' U.S. swimming coach Gregg Troy said. "It's never been done before, and it's probably never going to be done again. A lot of very unique things came together. You can see that this week -- Michael was fantastic, and it's still not quite Beijing.''
Almost giddy after watching Phelps on Thursday, Bowman admitted he had tempered his expectations. "Oh, I think this is really good,'' Bowman said. "I think it's beyond what I expected might happen. I try to be pretty positive about it, but once he had that  IM loss, I thought, uh-oh, maybe I was right about this.''
Instead, Phelps is churning toward the finish. He'll swim in the 100 butterfly finals Friday, then finish his career in the 400 medley relay. He could win gold in both.
Who, at this point, would bet against him?
Troy's defense of Lochte was the same as his praise of the greatest swimmer in history. "You've got to understand,'' he said. "Michael's the best.''
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM • firstname.lastname@example.org