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Nobody was arguing when Phelps raised his finger from the water towards the skies in a “No.1” gesture after winning the first individual competition of his Olympic swansong with a display, first of dominance and ultimately resilience, in which he just managed to hold off Japan's charging Masato Sakai in the 200m butterfly.
By his own admission, Phelps could not have scripted it better as he won back the title closest to his heart on an evening of pure gold for the most medalled Olympic athlete of all time. The 200m butterfly was the event in which the American made his Olympic debut, in Sydney in 2000. It was also, memorably the gold that got away at London 2012, where he was beaten by a fingertip by South African Chad Le Clos.
That defeat had hurt so much that Phelps made it his mission to exact revenge in Rio and win the 200m butterfly one last time.
“Mission accomplished,” he said after claiming the 20th Olympic gold of his career, a number that became 21 after he helped the US team win the 4x200m freestyle relay in the evening's finale. “I really wanted that one back,” said Phelps, who retired after 2012 but came back because he felt he needed to go out on his own terms.
“That event was kind of my bread and butter. That was the last time I'll ever swim it. Kind of having that come to an end, it’s crazy to think about. I didn't say anything to anyone else, but there wasn't a shot in hell I was losing it.”
Phelps said he had been prepared to leave “every ounce” in the pool, and strain every sinew. He did not know how close it had been until he was on the podium. “Just being able to see the number one next to my name again, one more time in the 200 fly, I couldn't have scripted it any better.”
Phelps had looked in complete control as he turned into the final 50m but Sakai surged back from sixth place, more than a second quicker than the tiring maestro, to get within 0.04 seconds of the victor, who clocked 1 min 53.36 secs. London 2012 gold medallist Le Clos just missed out on the bronze, which was won by Tamas Kenderesi of Hungary.
Only 70 minutes later, after finding time to give his baby son Boomer a cuddle at poolside following his victory ceremony, Phelps had a much less demanding task to anchor the USA men's relay quartet, starting off with a 10m lead following fine work from Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte. Great Britain were second and Japan third.
Afterwards USA coach Bob Bowman paid tribute to Phelps’ achievements. “It's remarkable. You know, given not just his age but everything that's transpired since London and before London and the whole totality of that.
“Tonight that 200m fly was really great. Somebody asked me where that ranks and I ranked it number two. His first one will always be my favourite, and by that I mean his first 200m butterfly medal not his first race, but that one was definitely number two.”