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Michael Phelps Swims Deeper Into the History Books — and Further Away From Ryan Lochte

Getty Images
Getty Images

In a press conference last weekend following the USA’s gold-medal victory in the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay, longtime Michael Phelps whisperer Bob Bowman seemed downright laid-back. “Michael usually works this way,” the coach said. “When one thing is good, everything is pretty good. It doesn’t usually work in parts. So I feel pretty good now.”

It seems like the man who has known Phelps since the Olympian was an 11-year-old pool rat was onto something: Since then, Phelps has won three more gold medals, the most recent in Thursday night’s hotly anticipated 200-meter individual medley. Phelps pulled away from a pack featuring, oh, just the fastest all-around swimmers in the world, and he practically had time to turn around and take in the second-place finish. His longtime foil (and the short-term foiled) Ryan Lochte didn’t so much as medal. It was one more top finish for Phelps, now swimming in his fifth Olympics, and one more reminder of just how exceptional his performance has been.

When he was still just a cocky young teen, Phelps’s goal was to raise the profile of swimming, to get it to a place where athletes stared down from billboards and people held opinions on favorite racers. Thursday’s 200 individual medley was a reminder of what he’s meant to the sport: There was the appointment-viewing swimming, scheduled live in prime time. (Phelps’s Baltimore Ravens paused a preseason game to broadcast the race.) There was the packed crowd roaring for athlete introductions as if it were a World Cup game. (There was even a high-profile broadcasting snafu.) And, in the lane next to Phelps, there was Lochte, whose career has somehow been both elevated and erased by their proximity. Brazilian crowd favorite Thiago Pereira swam next to them, the fans screaming in unison with his breaths. It all had the feel of a true big-time sporting event.

“I guess you would say I would be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there,” Lochte said earlier on Thursday in an NBC interview. When Lochte and Phelps won gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay on Tuesday, it was Lochte’s 12th Olympic medal, putting him second all-time among swimmers behind Phelps and above Mark Spitz. And yet he’ll always be viewed as someone who swam in Phelps’s wake.

The differences between the two athletes are many; if it weren’t for Phelps’s legal troubles they’d be borderline Goofus and Gallant. Over the years Phelps has come across as a bit of a high-strung swimming savant, while Lochte has been the dopey charmer dude overflowing with easy talent. Phelps has a serious brand that spells MVP; Lochte rocks winged American flag sneaks and his beloved grill. Phelps’s erstwhile reality show was about improving his golf swing; Lochte’s was an absurd romp about “life, love, and swimming” called What Would Ryan Lochte Do?

In this race, though, it was about what Phelps did. During the breaststroke, the brutal third lap of the medley race and Phelps’s weakest stroke, he made his move, passing Lochte and the popular Pereira. As they both faded down the freestyle stretch, Phelps only grew faster, widening his lead and touching the wall almost two full seconds ahead of Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, who won silver. Lochte came in fifth, while Phelps has now won so many gold medals that it would mess up his alignment to try to sport ’em all.

On Thursday night his celebration, by his own splashy standards, was almost muted, which is to say: There were none of those hulking outstretched come-at-me arms from the 200-meter butterfly win that made him resemble a thawed-out version of the Night King. But he saved his expressiveness for the medal stand, his face during the anthem looking half like a guy whose post-race cardiovascular system was operating at full-tilt and half like a guy just trying not to bawl like that little 3-month-old baby of his.

He pulled the bewildered silver- and bronze-medal winners against his broad chest for a group photo, pointed them expertly on their way, and dashed back toward the other end of the arena. A few minutes later, he was back in the pool to qualify for Friday’s finals in the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps usually hates to admit this, but his coach Bowman was, once again, right. Everything sure is pretty good.