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The 4 × 100-free-relay medal gave him career medal 17, just one shy of Latynina's mark. Numbers at this point aren't needed to confirm his greatness, however. Even before London, Phelps already was the Games' most gilded athlete, with 14 golds, five more than runners-up Latynina, Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi and Mark Spitz.
If anything, the events in London—Lochte's struggles especially—underscored how extraordinary Phelps's performances were in Beijing. "I've thought back to a lot of those memories recently," Phelps said late Sunday night. "In 2008 everything was in the perfect place for me. I was prepared—physically, mentally, emotionally. Everything was perfect."
Perfection in multiple events seemed out of reach in London. Newcomers overturned favorites and returning champions again and again. Beijing double gold medalist Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain's best hope in swimming, barely made the final of the 400 free and declared herself "happy" to have grabbed a bronze behind Camille Muffat of France and Allison Schmitt of the U.S. Three-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin, denied a shot at a third straight 100-backstroke gold after a poor showing at U.S. trials, was left off the evening swim of her only event, the 4 × 100 free relay, and had to watch as younger swimmers won her a 12th Olympic medal, a bronze, tying her with fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most by a female U.S. Olympian.
Some of the surprises were jaw-dropping. In the women's 100 breaststroke, Ruta Meilutyte, a little-known 15-year-old from Lithuania, edged Soni, the world champion and U.S. favorite, by .08 of a second to win her country's first Olympic swimming medal. In the men's 100 breast, two-time defending champ Kosuke Kitajima of Japan was treated just as rudely, finishing fifth, far behind Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa, who touched first in a world record of 58.46 seconds to become the first South African male to win an individual swimming gold. After jumping onto the lane line in celebration, van der Burgh reclined back as if he were settling into a beach chair and cupped his hands behind his head. Smiling, he looked upward and thought of his friend and rival Alexander Dale Oen, the 100 breaststroke world champion from Norway who died of sudden cardiac arrest in April. "I know he was probably laughing down at me, thinking, How can you go that time?" said van der Burgh.
One could ask the same thing of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who in the women's 400 IM became the first female swimmer to break a world record since high-buoyancy suits became illegal in 2010. Ye ran down favorite Elizabeth Beisel of the U.S. with an eyebrow-raising final 100-freestyle split of 58.68, just .03 slower than Lochte's final split in the men's 400 IM. Ye covered the last 50 meters in 28.93, .17 of a second faster than Lochte did.
Just 20 minutes before Ye's victory, teammate Sun Yang, 20, who broke Grant Hackett's 11-year-old 1,500-free world record last summer, had crushed 2008 gold medalist Park Tae-hwan of South Korea in the 400 free by almost two seconds. Sun, too, celebrated by hopping atop the lane line, screaming and pounding the water with clenched fists.
IN MONDAY night's loaded 200-freestyle final, Lochte faced both a showdown with Sun and Park and a rematch with his relay nemesis, Agnel. The Frenchman, like Sun, is a rangy 20-year-old with a beautiful freestyle stroke and a fierce competitive streak. "He has always scared me," said U.S. assistant coach Eddie Reese of Agnel. "He looks so good in the water."
Agnel dominated the 200. He beat Park and Sun, who tied for second, by nearly two seconds. Lochte finished fourth. "The rest of the world is right even with us," said Reese. "They are all over us."
Phelps may yet prove to be the U.S.'s greatest asset in fending off this wave of international challengers. He has almost single-handedly boosted the appeal of and financial support for American swimming and begun to attract more talented young athletes to the sport. When he turned pro in 2001, Phelps made it his mission to elevate the profile of swimming—"He wanted to see it on SportsCenter," says his agent, Peter Carlisle—and as he takes his final laps in London, he can look back with satisfaction on his impact. At the U.S. trials in Omaha in June, 11,000 to 14,000 people jammed the CenturyLink Center every night, three times as many as watched the 2000 trials, Phelps's first. NBC broadcast this year's trial finals live for eight nights and was rewarded with great ratings; swimming won its time slot five times and snagged the highest ratings in prime time twice.
"People care about it more, largely because of Michael's involvement," says Bowman. "What that translates into is more public awareness, which translates into more participation."