And so the greatest Olympian of all time has exited the greatest stage.
There were mixed emotions when we saw Phelps slip out of the pool for the last time, after completing the storming penultimate leg of the 4x100 meter medley relay.Joy, that his career would be crowned with another gold medal. Sadness, that we will be deprived of watching this magnificent athlete plying his trade.
How fitting it was to see Nathan Adrian touching home to hand team USA and Phelps a gold medal, drawing this dramatic, historical swim meet to a close. Sometimes we suspend our critical faculties and just become fans with typewriters—with Phelps it is justified.
The final two events of the London 2012 Olympics swim meet, showcased America at its dominant best. This swim meet delivered 30 medals for Team USA, including 16 gold.
Just before Phelps’s farewell, we had the peerless US women’s medley relay team blitz the opposition and smash the world record. It was a team bristling with talent, laden down with gold in their specialist individual events.
The 17-year-old Missy Franklin led team USA out on the first backstroke leg. This wonderful young woman weighted down with expectations of being compared to the incomparable, has worn her burden lightly throughout the meet. One can only hope her performances have brought a smile to the people of Aurora, Colorado. A smiling, effervescent presence on the blocks, in the water she destroys her opponents.
In tonight’s relay, she handed breast stroke specialist Rebecca Soni a comfortable lead at the change over. Soni stretched it and then Dana Vollmer ended the relay as a contest on her butterfly leg.
Now only two questions remained, as the rest disappeared in Vollmer’s slipstream: what teams would get the minor medals and would team USA break the world record? Allison Schmitt dove in on the final freestyle leg with a massive lead and sure enough was able to deliver the world record.
Schmitt touched home in a time of 3:52:05 ahead of a distant second Australia (3:54.02) and bronze medallist Japan (3:55:73).
Amateur schoolgirl Missy Franklin leaves London with four gold medals.
A few minutes later, there was the fission of excitement in the Aquatic Centre as the great one emerged from the locker room to take his final bow.
Every neutral in the arena was willing Phelps to end his career on a high—just as they were last night in the 100 meter butterfly when he turned in seventh position.
Matt Grevers led the US team out on the backstroke leg before handing over to Brendan Hansen on the breast stroke leg. Japan and the US were a distance ahead of the rest. Australia was struggling.
The Japanese team were swimming very strongly and Kosuke Kitajima took the lead for Japan. Phelps hit the water for his last competitive swim with 0.21 deficit to make up. In the first 50 meters, for a fleeting moment, we feared Phelps might be tiring as the gap to Takeshi Matsuda increased to 0.26.
However in his second lap, in a demonstration of classic butterfly swimming Phelps overhauled Matsuda. He handed 100 meter freestyle gold medallist Nathan Adrian a 0.26 advantage at the change over.
Phelps slipped out of the pool. his job done, a sparkling career over, a legacy of unprecedented greatness left behind.
Adrian took off, stretching the lead all the time while Japan and Australia fought over silver. Adrian touched home in a time of 3:29:35, just outside the world record. Team USA had won their 16th gold of the meet.
Phelps had won his 18th gold medal (twice as many as the next most highly decorated Olympian) and 22nd in total.
He had finished the meet as the most successful male swimmer once again and the first individual man to win gold in three consecutive games. That he still has critics is astounding. That he answered them in emphatic style is a valedictory statement of the best kind. There is a sub-editor in New York feeling as sheepish as the sub-editor who wrote "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Phelps entered the meet not at his dominant best of four years ago. In Beijing, he was imperious. There was inevitability about his victories.
Four years ago, it was just Phelps against the clock in many of his races. This time it was different. Phelps was vulnerable. This vulnerability has only resulted in growing his legend, as he bounced back from the setbacks in the 400-meter IM, 200-meter butterfly and 4x100 meter freestyle relay. Twice he vanquished his conquerors in those individual events at the shorter distances, as did Team USA in the 200-meter freestyle relay.
He got better as the meet progressed. The old Phelps re-emerged. A lesser athlete might have had doubts about coming back to swimming after his fourth place, might have crumbled under the pressure of chasing history and securing a legacy. Then again, a lesser athlete wouldn’t have won 22 medals.