After a stunning loss in his signature event — the men’s 200-metre butterfly — Phelps swam the final leg of the 4x200m freestyle to help America win Olympic gold on Tuesday in London.
The victory gave Phelps a career total of 19 medals, topping the long-standing Olympic record set by Russia’s legendary gymnast Larisa Latynina.
“He’s the greatest Olympian ever, absolutely,” said CBC Sports swimming expert Byron MacDonald. “Olympians are judged on their results and he’s the best.”
Predictably, the three-time defending Olympic champions dominated the race from start to finish, winning in a time of six minutes, 59.70 seconds.
Even France’s brilliant freestyler and anchor Yannick Agnel couldn’t make up the insurmountable deficit.
Instead the French team earned a respectable silver medal with a time of 7:02.77.
China, proving to be a swimming force at these Games, placed third in 7:06.30.
Phelps needed to get over his stunning loss in the butterfly race to South African Chad le Clos an hour earlier in quick order.
Luckily for him, the relay is an event the Americans haven’t lost in 12 years.
Ryan Lochte opened his leg with a strong push, building almost a second lead on Australia’s Thomas Fraser-Holmes.
As the race progressed, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens increased the Americans’ advantage to four seconds.
All Phelps had to do was bring the gold home as he showed no lingering effects from his earlier loss.
"I thanked those guys for helping me get to this moment," Phelps said. "I told those guys I wanted a big lead. I was like, 'You better give me a big lead going into the last lap,' and they gave it to me. I just wanted to hold on. I thanked them for being able to allow me to have this moment."
Phelps stunned by le Clos
It also eased the pain of the dramatic way he was upset in the 200m butterly.
Leading with only metres to go, Phelps was out-touched at the wall by le Clos, with the South African winning the gold medal in a time of 1:52.96.
Phelps, who has clearly lost his aura of invincibility, settled for his second silver medal of the Games, just 0.05 of a second behind le Clos.
Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda earned the bronze in 1:53.21.
Phelps failed in his attempt to become the first male swimmer to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics.
The race had all the makings of a Phelps rout. Normally, he likes to hold back and conserve his energy for the finish.
Not this time.
The 27-year-old took charge from the beginning, as if to tell the rest of the field that this event still belongs to the master.
Yet after the final turn, le Clos was closing in on the best finisher the sport has ever known. In a scene reminiscent of the 100m butterfly at the Beijing Olympics, le Clos edged Phelps with one last reach to the wall.
Phelps won in similar fashion against the trash-talking Milorad Cavic of Serbia four years ago.
"Obviously I would have liked to have a better outcome in the 200 fly," Phelps said. "I was on the receiving end of getting touched out. Chad swam a good race. I've gotten to know him a little over the last year. He's a hard worker, he's a tough competitor and he's a racer."
Le Clos pounded the water when he saw the "1" beside his name.
MacDonald believes a mental breakdown cost Phelps at the finish.
"In the end I was stunned because he missed timed [the wall],” he said.'
“He let his legs float back up to the surface with a nice, easy kick down and he kind of glided into the wall. He needed to have a short, little snappy kick at the end that would’ve given him that extra push to the wall and he would’ve won the gold medal.
This is not the type of performances fans have come to expect from Phelps.
During the previous two Olympics, the “Baltimore Bullet” has totaled 14 gold and 16 overall medals. He broke Mark Spitz’s incredible mark when he captured a remarkable eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But Phelps has looked less than extraordinary during his three events prior to Tuesday’s relay win. At the U.S. trials earlier in the summer, Phelps decided to enter the 400 individual medley, a race he hadn’t compete in regularly since Beijing.
The decision proved to be a colossal error in judgment.
Predictably, he got wiped out on Saturday by compatriot and rival Ryan Lochte, and failed to reach the podium.
A day later, he swam the fastest U.S. leg of the men ‘s 4x100 freestyle relay, but the team was upended by France at the end, when Yannick Agnel blew by Lochte.
China's Ye wins 2nd gold
Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen set an Olympic record to win the 200m individual medley at the London Games, adding to her gold in the 400 IM.
The 16-year-old Ye took the lead in the final lap and clocked 2:7.57 seconds, shaving 0.18 off her own mark set in Monday's semifinal.
Alicia Coutts of Australia touched in 2:08.15 to take the silver medal and Caitlin Leverenz of the United States finished in 2:08.95 to take bronze. Defending champion Stephanie Rice of Australia was fourth.
American Allison Schmitt wins 200m freestyle
American Allison Schmitt won the 200 freestyle with a dominating performance that left everyone else, including teammate Missy Franklin, battling for the other medals.
Schmitt won with an Olympic-record of 1:53.61. France's Camille Muffat took silver in 1:55.58, almost a body length behind, while Bronte Barrett of Australia took the bronze over Franklin by a thousandth of a second. Barrett touched in 1:55.81. Franklin, who led after the first 50, was fourth in 1:55.82.
- The men's 4x200m freestyle relay team (Blake Worsley, Vancouver, 25.55; Colin Russell, Toronto, 2:13.01; Tobias Oriwol, Toronto, 4:01.79 and Alec Page, Victoria, 5:51.78) finished seventh in their qualifying heat in 7:15.22 and failed to advance.
- Brent Hayden, of Mission, B.C, finished third in his men's 100m freestyle qualifying heat in 48.53 and advanced. Hayden then finished fourth in the semifinal heat in 48.21 and advanced to Wednesday's final.
- Scott Dickens, of Ancaster, Ont., finished first in his qualifying heat in 2:10.95 and advanced in the men's 200m breaststroke, but dropped to eighth in his semifinal heat in 2:11.71 and failed to advance.
- Audrey Lacroix, from Pont-Rouge, Que., finished sixth in her qualifying heat in 2:09.25 for the women's 200m butterfly and advanced.
- Katerine Savard, of Cap-Rouge, Que., finished seventh in her breaststroke heat in 2:11.05 and failed to advance.
- Lacroix then finished seventh in her semifinal heat in 2:08.00 and failed to advance.