You’ve just become the most successful Olympian of all time. Yet, you still have some critics who say you are past your best and that you needed a little help from your friends to get you over the line in the relay. The media is saying you are washed up.
Where do you go from there?
Well, when you are Michael Phelps, you produce your greatest performance of the swim meet thus far and vanquish your closest rival to also-swam status.
Oh, and then you become the first man to win an individual event in three consecutive games.
Phelps rolled back the years and produced an utterly dominant performance in the 200-meter individual medley to win his 16th gold and 20th Olympic medal in total on Thursday.
If that wasn’t enough, he easily qualified for the 100-meter butterfly final 45 minutes later, posting the fastest time this year and laying down a marker to the young pretender Chad Le Clos. Le Clos qualified second fastest, five-hundredths of a second slower than Phelps.
Before tonight’s pool session, not a single reigning champion had retained their crown in this most unpredictable of meets.
There was a new wave of young swimmers like Shinwen and Agnel threatening to submerge the old guard.
The greatest champions are champions for a reason, and Rebecca Soni began the fight back for the old order.
Soni’s 200-meter breast stroke oozed the class, composure and confidence of a great champion. Soni was content to be pulled along behind Suzan van Biljon for the first 50 meters before taking command in the second lap.
From there, she was able to boss the race, and her rivals disappeared in her wake. In the last 50 meters it was just Soni against the clock—against the world record she had set the previous night and against the 2:20 barrier.
In the last lap, Soni’s stroke rate increased as the crowd began to sense a world record about to fall. She powered through the last 25 meters. Propelled by her narrow kick, she touched home in 2:19:59 ahead of Japan’s Suzuki and Russia’s Efimova .
A truly remarkable time considering the previous record was set in the era of the now prohibited polyurethane suits.
Soni had been beaten by 15 year old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte in the 100-meter breast stroke final on Monday, but this was the natural order restored.
Also trying to win one for the "old" guys was Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter back stroke final. Lochte had eased home in the semi-final and seemed unbeatable in this event. For 150 meters he was cruising, powerfully kicking off the wall at the turns—his ground work paying dividends.
At the last turn, inexplicably, Tyler Clary surfaced level with Lochte. Clary measured his swim to perfection and touched home first in an Olympic record time of 1:53:41. Lochte seemed to tire in the last 50 meters and had to settle for bronze behind Clary and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie.
Prior to the Olympics, 23-year-old Clary was best known for making disparaging remarks about Michael Phelps’s training regime. In London, he finally walked the walk after talking the talk. If he wins another 19 medals, we might start to listen to him.
The Women’s 100-meter free style lacked the drama of the Men’s equivalent. Once Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands kicked for home, there was only going to be one winner. Kromowidjojo—the fastest qualifier—won the race in an Olympic record time of 53:00. Belarussian Aliaksandra Herasimenia (53:38) took home Silver and China’s Yi Tang (53:44) won bronze.
Missy Franklin was a distant fifth, a poor start having cost her dearly. Her reaction time of 0.78 was the slowest of the finalists.
The main event of the night was undoubtedly the duel in the pool between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley.
Lochte had qualified fastest with Phelps trailing in behind him, and Hungarian Laszlo Cseh had qualified second. Lochte had the psychological edge after winning the 400-meter equivalent.
From the start, Phelps was at his best. We expected him to go out fast on the butterfly leg—his strongest stroke.
However, Phelps won this race with a commanding performance on the backstroke. Phelps seemed to be gliding, while Lochte was heavy in the water. Phelps was hitting a World Record Split on this stroke. He maintained his advantage on the breast stroke, and once he had switched to free style with his lead intact, he was never going to be reined in.
Lochte, having slipped back to third at stage one, fought back strongly on the freestyle leg, but Phelps had an unassailable lead.
Phelps was under world record time with 10 meters left, but he just missed out on it. Never mind he had just given a stunning riposte to his critics.
Phelps was the epitome of grace when he laughed and joked with his 200-meter butterfly conqueror Chad le Clos on Tuesday, telling him to hold his gold medal higher. One feels tomorrow it will be Le Clos’s turn to suffer defeat with magnanimity.
Phelps—the greatest Olympian of all time—will bow out in style.