The showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte brought the thousands of fans inside the Olympic Aquatics Stadium to their feet, twirling T-shirts over their heads, waving flags and roaring in anticipation of the final act in a rivalry that’s extended more than a decade.
But this one wasn’t even close.
In the latest demonstration of dominance during what is likely the final week of his swimming career, Phelps easily outdistanced Lochte and the rest of the field to win the 200-meter individual medley and his fourth gold medal of the Games.
As much as Phelps and Lochte have a long history, there was a milestone of another nature on Thursday night. Simone Manuel became the first black woman to ever win an individual swimming gold medal at the Games.
Manuel, 20, had to share her 100-meter freestyle gold with Canadian Penny Oleksiak, 16, of Canada.
“I never thought I would be in this position, but I’m so blessed and honored to be on the medal stand,” Manuel said of her achievement.
Still, the night belonged to Phelps and a career that gets more memorable with every race.
“Every single day I’m living a dream come true,” said Phelps, now owner of a record 26 Olympic medals, 22 of them gold. “As a kid, I wanted to do something that no one had ever done before and I’m enjoying it. Being able to finish how I want is something very special to me.”
The showdown turned into a statement. After touching the wall, Phelps held up four fingers. “It’s not like pulling teeth to get me in the pool anymore,” Phelps said. “I want to finish my career how I want, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Lochte, who set the world record in the event in 2011, faded to fifth after a difficult final leg. The neck-and-neck race between two of the sport’s brightest stars never materialized.
“Going against him is a dream come true,” said Lochte, with 13 Olympic medals of his own. “Especially what he has done in the sport. He has changed it. He’s one of the best, not swimmer ever, best athlete in the Olympics. For me, being able to push him for so many years, we bring out the best in each other.”
The showing frustrated Lochte, 32, who battled a groin injury at the U.S. Olympic trials last month and qualified for the Games in only one individual event. He wants to take some time off — he’s not sure if two weeks or two years are needed — before deciding what’s next in his career.
Manuel’s win was the night’s biggest surprise. She found herself in third place after the first 50 meters, but rallied to finish in 52.70 seconds and drop more than four-tenths of a second from her semifinal time. The mark set a new Olympic record and is the first gold medal for the U.S. in the race since 1984.
“It’s been a long journey for me,” Manuel said. “I definitely worked hard these past four years, day in and day out. Just to see it pay off when I really needed it is something I’m really grateful for.”
Tears streaked down Manuel’s face as she shared the medal podium with Oleksiak.
“When I came in tonight, I was like, ‘I want to get on that medal stand,’” said Manuel, the second-place finisher in the race at the U.S. Olympic trials. “Just surpassing that goal … is super exciting to me.”
Australia’s Cate Campbell, who broke the event’s world record last month, faded to sixth.
Ryan Murphy delivered another gold for the U.S. After capturing the 100-meter backstroke earlier this week, he did the same in the 200-meter edition in 1:53.62.
“The 200 back is an event that I really have to dig deep for,” he said. “So that’s the event that I’ve been training for all year. That’s the one I wanted really bad.”
Phelps still has more work to do. In an 11-minute span Thursday, he received the gold medal for the 200 IM, teared up during the ceremony, then exited to the ready room and quickly emerged to swim the first semifinal heat of the 100-meter butterfly.
The emotional swing could rattle some swimmers. But Phelps looked as methodical as always, cruising through the race to easily qualify for Friday’s final. He’s also expected to join the 400-meter medley relay for the U.S. before the competition ends.
Lochte, though, one of Phelps’ roommates in the athletes’ village, wonders if his friend can really walk away from the sport he rules. Phelps insists this is it. In the ready room before the 200 IM, Lochte told him that he won’t believe it until the retirement actually happens.
In the meantime, Phelps isn’t slowing down.