This is why Michael Phelps returned.
As supporters waved American flags and generated a din that made conversation difficult in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Tuesday, the most decorated Olympian of all time navigated through a swarm of khaki-vested photographers. He stretched over the railing to his fiancee Nicole Johnson and their infant son Boomer. Phelps kissed the four-month-old three times. Johnson laughed as tears rolled down her face.
Phelps looked as if he didn’t want the moment to end.
In what is likely the final week of a career that revolutionized swimming and left a trail of shattered records, the 31-year-old showed that he’s not finished yet. Phelps held on to win gold in the 200-meter butterfly, then less than an hour later anchored the winning 800-meter freestyle relay team.
“I came into the pool on a mission,” Phelps said, “and the mission was accomplished.”
He now owns 25 Olympic medals — 21 of them gold — and is the oldest man ever to win an individual gold at the Games.
Even teammates are in awe.
“It’s crazy what he has pulled off,” said Katie Ledecky, who won her second gold of the Games on Tuesday by holding on in the 200-meter freestyle. “I cannot wait to see what he’ll do the rest of the week.”
Ledecky peered over reporters in the mixed zone to see a television as Phelps raced in the 200 butterfly. Everything seems to stop when he leaps into the pool.
But Phelps could’ve missed out on all this.
After the London Olympics in 2012, he retired for 18 months. He wanted to be finished with swimming for good. But Phelps returned — with the caveat that he’d never again swim the 200 butterfly. The opportunity to make up for a lackluster effort in London — at least by his lofty standards — drew him back.
Phelps relented on returning to swim the 200 butterfly, an event where he holds the world record and won Olympic golds in 2004 and 2008, during a two-year journey that included a brush with the law and then finding peace in his personal life.
This year, however, Phelps hadn’t matched his world-leading times from 2015. After the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha in July, Phelps and Bob Bowman, his coach for two decades, were blunt in their assessment that much remained to improve.
The first public hint of the kind of strides Phelps made during the last month came in his first race in Rio de Janeiro, the 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday. He blazed through the second leg as the U.S. won gold.
Bowman had seen this before. When Phelps cruises through an event that’s not his best, that usually signals big things for the trademark events to come.
During the preliminary heat of the 200 butterfly Monday, a ferocious, single-minded stare consumed Phelps’ face in the ready room. Chad Le Clos, the South African who edged Phelps for gold in the race at the London Olympics, danced around. Phelps didn’t flinch.
“We are competitors,” Phelps said. “I don’t want him to win and he doesn’t want me to. But the kid has got talent.”
Pictures of Phelps’ face — looking hellbent on winning — rocketed around the Internet and the #PhelpsFace hashtag trended on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Phelps followed through by winning the 200 butterfly in 1 minute 53.36 seconds, fourth-hundreds of a second ahead of second-place Masato Sakai of Japan. Le Clos faded to fourth.
About 10 minutes after that medal ceremony — Phelps wanted to hold Boomer longer — the relay gave him the second gold of the night. But two individual events — he can challenge for gold in both — and a relay still remain for the father.
Ledecky, the 19-year-old who is the youngest member of the U.S. team, dominated, too. She outdistanced a loaded field in the 200 freestyle and held off Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom down the stretch to win her second gold of the Games.
Ledecky finished in 1 minute 53.73 seconds, less than a second off the world record. Sjostrom came in second in 1:54.08.
On Sunday, Ledecky broke her world record in the 400 freestyle for the first gold. The finals of the 800 freestyle, where she owns the 10 fastest times in history, are Friday.
“That hurt pretty badly,” said Ledecky, usually accustomed to winning by a comfortable margin. “It’s the closest I’ve come to throwing up at the end of a race. I was just glad to get my hand on the wall first. It was a stressful race and I feel good now it’s over.”
But for Phelps, the chase for more history is just getting started.
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