LONDON – Michael Phelps is turning his final Olympics into quite a victory lap, and don’t fret about American swimming after he’s gone.
Led by a pair of high schoolers, the post-Phelps era will be in good hands.
In what amounted to a symbolic changing of the guard Friday, Phelps claimed the 17th gold medal of a career that has just 24 hours to go – on the same night one teenager, Missy Franklin, broke a world record in the backstroke and another, Katie Ledecky, took down a hallowed American mark that was set nearly eight years before she was born.
“This has sort of turned into the youth Olympics,” Franklin said. “There’s so many members of the team that are coming up this year that are going to carry on this incredible generation.”
His long arms whirling through the water, Phelps was seventh at the turn in 100-meter butterfly – it always takes him a while to get up to speed – but he brought it home like a champion. That, in a sense, sums up his Olympics farewell. He got off to a sluggish start but has three victories in the past four days, and it’s almost certain he’ll take home one more gold today.
That’s a relay.
This was the final race he’ll do alone.
“I’m just happy that the last one was a win,” said Phelps, who will likely fade into retirement with twice as many golds as anyone else. “That’s all I really wanted coming into the night.”
He’ll finish up swimming the butterfly leg of 4x100 medley relay, an event the U.S. men have never lost. That streak should carry right on with the Americans sending out an imposing quartet that includes three gold medalists (Phelps, freestyler Nathan Adrian and backstroker Matt Grevers), plus a guy who won bronze (breaststroker Brendan Hansen).
Just minutes before Phelps took center stage at the Olympic Aquatics Centre, Franklin set a world record in the 200 backstroke, the 17-year-old’s third gold in London. Another American teen, 19-year-old Elizabeth Beisel, claimed the bronze in that race.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” said Franklin, who had dedicated her Olympics to victims of the theater shooting not far from her Colorado home. “In that last 25, I knew I was giving it everything I had because I couldn’t feel my arms and legs and I was just trying to get my hand to the wall as fast I could.”
Right after Phelps was done, Ledecky – the youngest member of the U.S. team at 15 – nearly broke the world record to win gold in the 800 freestyle, denying Britain’s Rebecca Adlington a repeat before her home fans. Adlington settled for bronze in a race Ledecky dominated from start to finish, falling off record pace only in the last 15 meters.
But no one has dominated like Phelps, who increased his career overall medal total to 21.
“He’s the king of the Olympics Games,” said his butterfly rival, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic.
Even though Phelps didn’t go as fast in the final as he did in the semifinals, he actually won by a relatively comfortable margin compared to his two previous Olympic wins in the 100 fly: four-hundredths of a second over Ian Crocker in 2004, then one-hundredth of a second – the closest race possible – against Cavic at the Beijing Games four years ago.
That was the victory that kept Phelps on course to win a historic eight gold medals in China.
This was about going out in style.
Phelps slammed the wall in 51.21 seconds for payback against the guy who edged him in the 200 fly, Chad le Clos of South Africa. No gliding into this finish, the move that cost Phelps the gold in their first meeting.
“I thought it would hit me a lot harder than what it is right now,” Phelps said. “I guess a lot of those emotions haven’t really come through my brain over the last week. Once I’m done and once tomorrow is over, I think there’s going to be a lot more emotion that really comes out.”
Le Clos finished in 51.44, patting Phelps on the shoulder after tying for silver with Russia’s Evgeny Korotyshkin. Cavic tied for fourth in 51.81.
Franklin – “Missy The Missile” – has certainly lived up to her nickname, completing a sweep of the backstroke events in a time of 2 minutes, 4.06 seconds, easily eclipsing the record of 2:04.81 set by defending Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry at the 2009 worlds in a now-banned bodysuit.
Russia’s Anastasia Zueva took silver, a body length behind Franklin in 2:05.92. Beisel put a second American on the medal podium in 2:06.55, while Coventry finished sixth.
Ledecky seemingly came out of nowhere to make the U.S. team, and nearly took out a world record in her first Olympics. She was ahead of Adlington’s record pace (8:14.10) from the Beijing Olympics until right at the end, finally tiring just a bit for a time of 8:14.63.
She settled for crushing Janet Evans’ American mark of 8:16.22, set in Tokyo on Aug. 20, 1989.
“I figured I was going pretty fast,” Ledecky said.
Mireia Belmonte Garcia of Spain was far behind for silver in 8:18.76, while Adlington held on to take bronze at 8:20.32.