Bouncing back from a lackluster beginning to his final Games,
could add two new superlatives to his already glittering Olympic legacy as early as Tuesday.
When Phelps climbs on the starting blocks for Tuesday night's 200-meter butterfly, he will be chasing gold as he always does. While these games have seen him fall short of that -- he left empty-handed from Saturday's 400-meter individual medley and won silver in Sunday's 400-meter freestyle -- any color medal will tie him with the woman who is currently the most decorated Olympian ever.
And Phelps won't be done with the records even even then: He'll swim in the 800 free relay later in the night, an event in which the Americans are favored, giving him the possibility of surpassing Larisa Latynina, a Soviet-era gymnast who has 18 Olympic medals. Latynina, 77, is here hoping to see her own record shattered.
They have met before, at a photo shoot in New York, when Latynina gave Phelps a non-Olympic medal for good luck and her blessings to go for it.
"It was an honor to meet sombedy, such a legend and an icon, especially in the Olympic movement," Phelps said earlier this year. "We were sort of joking around, through a translator. It definitely was pretty cool."
In addition to Latynina's 48-year-old record, Phelps can add something else to the books Tuesday night with a gold-medal swim in the 200 fly: He could become the first male swimmer to win the same event in three Olympics.
"I've always wanted to be the first person to do something," Phelps has said in the past.
He had his chance to do that on Saturday, but instead came in fourth, so unexpected an event that there were those ready to stick a fork in the Baltimore swimmer and declare him over.
But, of course, counting Phelps out or expressing doubts about his abilities tends to motivate him. Whether that was the case here is unknown, but since his 400 IM defeat, Phelps has been swimming more purposefully.
After much buzz that he might not be put on the 400-meter freestyle relay, which he traditionally leads off, Phelps swam second and put in the U.S. team's fastest split. The Americans would fall in a heartbreaker in a reverse of the 2008 Beijing relay in which the anchor, Jason Lezak, came from behind to overtake the French team, this time, it was Ryan Lochte, swimming last, who was chased down by his French counterpart.
Then, on Monday, Phelps swam in the preliminary and semi-final heats to qualify for Tuesday's final. They were not the dominating swims of his highlight reels, but they did the trick and got him where he wanted to be.
It would be fitting, even poetic, if the 200-fly were the race that brought him back into the record-making or breaking business again. It is a race that he has long owned, and when you think of Phelps, the image that comes to mind is that of him in full fly, his long arms pushing the water away as he rides high toward the finish.
It is the race that launched the Olympic career in 2000 that he is now closing out. A skinny 15-year-old, Phelps was a surprise entrant in the 2000 Games , qualifying in the 200 fly. While he would not medal he came in fifth less than a year later, he would become the youngest male swimmer to set a world record in the event. He has broken that record seven times since.
"This is my fourth
in this event. It's special to me, it's special to my family, it's special to my mom," Phelps said after qualifying for the event a month ago at the swimming trials "Our family's always been butterfliers, so this event has been fairly special to us."
Phelps' older sisters, Hilary and Whitney -- in the stands here with their mother Debbie -- were elite swimmers themselves. Whitney was on track to become an Olympian herself until injuries shortened her career. In fact, a 1994 Baltimore Sun story headlined, "Facing the world's best doesn't faze 14-year-old star Phelps," was not about Michael but Whitney, who was about to become the women's national champion -- in the 200 fly.
A more relaxed Phelps was on view Monday after the 200-fly semifinal.
"I just wanted to set myself up, not be in lane eight, not be on the outside, try to move myself closer to the mddle," he said.
It was in that outer-limit lane, reserved for the last seed, that Phelps failed to medal in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, And it was after his rival Ryan Lochte won gold in that race that many rushed to annoint him the new top dog.
Instead, Lochte's quest to make the London Games his coronation, after years of swimming in Phelps' shadow, hit a couple of roadblocks.
He finished fourth in the 200-meter freestyle final Monday night, bedeviled once again by French swimmer Yannick Agnel, who had overtaken him in the final leg of Sunday night's 400-meter relay to snatch away the race that the U.S. team had led until then.
Suddenly, it was Lochte's turn to look a bit out of sorts after races.
"I guess I took it out a little too fast," Lochte said after the 200 free. "I knew if I wanted to be in the race, I had to go out a little. Next time I won't make that same mistake."
And, in an echo of what Phelps said after Lochte won the 400 IM and he left empty-handed, Lochte said referring to any lingering impact of the relay: "Whatever happened last night, happened last night. You move on."
The quick reversal of fortune since Saturday, with a once-down Phelps seeming to be back to his old form, and a dominant Lochte faltering is perhaps a cautionary tale of the peril of rushing to judgment, for one thing. And, for another, how hard it was to achieve what Phelps has done over the course of his career, and how difficult it is for someone even as accomplished as Lochte to supplant him.
"To win a medal is not an easy thing to do,"
said after winning gold in the 100-meter backstroke, referring to both swimmers. "To win six of them, or however many they've won, is a really hard thing to accomplish.
"Your body's going to get tired. It's not just a physcial strain but an emotional strain to get up and compete every time," Grevers said. "I think they're doing well, and I expect them to get back on top by the end of the Games."