Record 19th medal makes Olympic history even as he looked more human than ever in the pool.
LONDON - For so long, Michael Phelps' relationship with the swimming world was simple. He played the role of the prow; everyone else trailed in his wake.
Tuesday night, Phelps' relationship with the swimming world became more nuanced even as his role in Olympic history became clear.
Phelps won two medals at the Aquatics Center, giving him 19 in his career. That topped Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's previous mark of 18 from 1956 to 1964 and gave him more than anyone else in Olympic history.
"Being able to do something that nobody else has done before -- that's what I always said I wanted to do," Phelps said.
Yet he achieved the milestone while losing at the finish of his best race and relying on his teammates in another.
It's hard to say which was more unprecedented.
Phelps earned his first medal of the night while being overtaken at the finish of the 200-meter butterfly by South African Chad le Clos, who won by 0.05 second.
"Yeah,'' Phelps said, "I was upset.''
Phelps hadn't lost that particular race in a major meet since 2000. After the photo finish, Phelps whirled in the water, spied the result, threw his cap in disgust, and dived over the lane barrier to shake Le Clos' hand, and then kept diving over barriers until he was pulling himself out of the pool. He looked back over his shoulder as he walked away, as if in disbelief.
Phelps smiled through the medal ceremony as Le Clos cried, then turned his attention to the 4x200 meter relay. Turns out, Phelps could have worn water wings and a nose pin. Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens gave Phelps an immense lead on the anchor leg, and he coasted home, before slapping the hands of his teammates, then teaching them how to conduct themselves during a medal ceremony.
"The way he handled that silver medal tonight, I think I'm prouder of that one than maybe any of the other ones,'' said Phelps' personal coach, Bob Bowman. "That one was kind of heartbreaking. He immediately went down and got warmed up and swam one of the great relay splits ever done to win the team gold medal. The whole thing showed how he matured.''
Said Phelps: "I started smiling with like 20 meters to go. That's the first time I think I've ever done that in a race. I knew we had won. I'm kind of at a loss for words right now."
Last week, Phelps met the woman whose record he would break. He hugged Latynina and mugged for the cameras, and then failed to medal in his first race, the 400-meter individual medley, as Lochte won the gold.
Phelps looked angry, but not as angry as he looked after the 200 butterfly.
"This has been, well, a lot,'' Phelps said. "I guess the last couple of days I've probably been a lot more relaxed. The first couple of days I was uptight, trying to be super serious, and just the last couple of days I've just been laughing all the time, just having fun. That's what I said I wanted to do in the beginning, and that's what I'm going to do the rest of the week.''
Phelps' relay teammates were in the warmup pool when Le Clos outreached Phelps. They weren't sure how to react.
"But a mad Phelps,'' said Berens, "is a good Phelps to have on your relay.''
Before the race, Phelps went to his teammates and showed them a fist, symbolizing teamwork. After the race, he gathered them again.
"He came to us and said, 'I just became the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, and I want to thank you guys,'" Berens said. "We didn't have much to say, because we're usually thanking him.''
By taking silver in his best race and relying on his teammates in the relay, Phelps seemed more human than the machine he appeared to be while winning eight golds in Beijing.
"It has been a pretty amazing career,'' said Phelps, who has insisted this is his last Olympics. "But we still have a couple of races to go.''
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