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The Rio 2016 swimming competition got under way the day after the Opening Ceremony, with Japan’s Kosuke Hagino claiming the first men’s gold, in the 400m individual medley. Hagino’s winning time of 4:06.05 was the third fastest ever in an event described by Phelps as the “decathlon of swimming”. Taking the silver was the USA’s Chase Kalisz, the fastest man in the heats, with Hagino’s team-mate Daiya Seto finishing third.
Australia’s Mack Horton beat China’s Sun Yang in the 400m freestyle final. The defending champion and reigning two-time world champion, Sun was widely tipped to retain his title, though Horton had other ideas. A lowly sixth at the 150m mark, the Australian hit the front with 50m remaining and held off the Chinese swimmer to relieve him of his crown. Italy’s Gabriele Detti won the bronze, his country’s first medal of Rio 2016. The 20-year-old Horton, who touched home in a time of 3:41.55, 13 hundredths faster than Sun, said: “In the last 50 metres I just thought to myself that I’ve got no choice but to win this.”
Great Britain’s Adam Peaty claimed the first swimming world record of Rio 2016, taking his own 100m breaststroke mark down to 57.55 in the heats, 1.36 seconds faster than the second-fastest qualifier, Yasuhiro Koseki of Japan. “After 50m, I knew I was going fast and when I heard the crowd cheering in the last 25m, I said to myself: ‘There are no Brazilians in this race, so there must be a reason why they’re shouting’,” said the 21-year-old Briton, competing in his first Games.
Phelps played a decisive role in the men’s 4x100m freestyle final, linking up with Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held and Nathan Adrian as the USA beat France (Mehdy Metella, Fabien Gilot, Florent Manaudou and Jérémy Stravius) by 0.61 seconds. The gold was Phelps’ 19th since Athens 2004 and his 23rd medal in his storied Olympic career. Defeat for France was also their first in the event in four years, a winning streak that had begun with victory over Phelps and the USA at London 2012.
Though Metella got the French off to a flying start, they failed to threaten the USA quartet, with Phelps swimming an excellent 47.12 on the second leg, faster than his London 2012 time. The Americans stopped the clock at 3:09.92, well clear of the French, with Australia (James Roberts, Kyle Chalmers, James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy) taking the bronze.
“We wanted that race back so badly,” said Phelps. “The young guys (Held and Dressel) started to cry on the podium and I cried with them. We wanted to win so much.”
In the 100m breaststroke final, Peaty set a second world record in the space of two days, taking his personal best down to 57.13 and ending a 28-year wait for British gold in the pool. His country’s first swimming gold medallist since Adrian Moorhouse in the same distance at Seoul 1988, Peaty topped the podium from South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh and the USA’s Cody Miller. Reacting to his historic swim, the new champion said: “It was one of my many sources of motivation coming here. It was always in the back of my mind. Twenty-eight years is a very long time and I said to myself that being the first person to end that wait would be an honour. Nothing means more to me than competing for my country, for the Queen, the royal family and the people who’ve supported me so much at home.”
A silver medallist in the 400m freestyle, Sun Yang came back to claim the 200m freestyle title two days later, mirroring his performances at London 2012, where he also won 1500m freestyle gold and bronze in the 4x200m freestyle. Sun clocked a time of 1:44.65 to top the podium from reigning 200m butterfly champion Chad le Clos of South Africa and the USA’s Conor Dwyer. Lying third after 150m, the 24-year-old Chinese swimmer overhauled Dwyer and then the fast-starting Le Clos on the last length.
Ryan Murphy of the USA came close to a world record in winning the 100m backstroke final and continuing his country’s run of success in the event. Murphy, whose time of 51.97 was just 0.03 outside the world best, won from China’s Xu Jiayu and fellow American David Plummer. Reigning world champion Mitchell Larkin of Australia finished fourth. In reaching the podium, Murphy and Plummer backed up their performances at the US Trials, where they beat London 2012 champion Matt Grevers. “I don’t even feel tired just because I’m so excited,” said Murphy, a first-time Olympian. “This means everything to me. I’ve been swimming for 16 years and to have it come to this is just a dream come true.”
Phelps delivered another breathtaking display of his ability when he secured victories in the 200m butterfly and the 4x200m freestyle relay to extend his record Olympic gold medal tally to 21. “That's a lot of medals,” said Phelps at the end of another historic night for him. “It's just insane. It's mind-blowing.”
It began with Phelps reclaiming the 200m butterfly title, which Le Clos had taken from him in London four years earlier. Making sure there would be no repeat this time, the American touched the wall in 1:53.36, clinching gold by a mere 0.04 from Japan’s Masato Sakai and Hungary’s Tamas Kenderesi to become the first swimmer to win four Olympic medals in the same individual event. Le Clos finished just out of the medals in fourth.
Celebrating victory by raising an index finger to the sky, a jubilant Phelps then climbed up to the stands to hug his fiancée Nicole Johnson, his mother Debbie and his three-month-old son Boomer. Recalling the win later in the evening, Phelps said: “I wanted that one back. I came into the pool tonight with a mission and the mission was accomplished.”
A little over an hour later, the Baltimore legend was back in the pool, anchoring the USA to victory in the 4x200m freestyle final, where he teamed up with Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte as the Americans comfortably won gold in 7:00.66, well clear of Great Britain and Japan. When he emerged from the water, an exhausted but happy Phelps received a deserved ovation from the crowd, who were grateful to witness yet another remarkable chapter in his long-running Olympic success story.
Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Balandin pulled off one of the week’s most stunning wins, in the 200m breaststroke, giving his country its first ever Olympic swimming title. After scraping into the final with the eighth-fastest qualifying time, Balandin produced the race of his life from Lane 8. Sidelined for a year with a serious knee injury before returning to the pool in 2014, the Kazakh swimmer touched home first in a time of 2:07.46, beating the USA’s Josh Prenot by 0.07, with Russian teenager Anton Chupkov taking the bronze.
“This is the greatest honour and the biggest thing that I could offer my country,” said Balandin. “I’ve made history because this is Kazakhstan’s first swimming gold. I’m so happy and proud that I won it. I think my compatriots will be drinking to my health tonight.”
Day five of the swimming competition also saw the crowning of a new sprint king, with Australia’s Kyle Chalmers taking the 100m freestyle title. The youngest winner of the blue riband event since Moscow 1980, the 18-year-old upstaged his compatriot and friend Cameron McEvoy, who came in seventh, and defending champion Nathan Adrian of the USA to land his country’s first gold in the event since Mike Wenden at Mexico City 1968. Chalmers won in a junior world record time of 47.58, just ahead of Belgium’s Pieter Timmers, with Adrian having to settle for bronze.
Phelps took his tally of Olympic golds to 22 and further consolidated his status at the greatest Olympian of them all by landing the 200m medley title for the fourth time running, a first in an individual swimming event. “Every day is a dream,” said the man himself. “As a kid I wanted to do something that no one had ever done before and I’m enjoying it.”
The 31-year-old was in a different league to the opposition as he landed his fourth gold of the week in style, powering clear over the breaststroke and freestyle legs to prevail in a time of 1:54.66, nearly two seconds faster than Japan’s Hagino and China’s Whang Sun. “We worked pretty hard on the breaststroke, and I think you could see that,” said Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman. “I think Michael surprised more than a few people.”
“Being able to finish like this is just something very special to me and this is why you are seeing more and more emotion on the medal podium,” added the Baltimore swimmer. With his four consecutive 200m medley titles, Phelps joined compatriots Al Oerter, a four-time discus champion between Melbourne 1956 and Mexico City 1968, and Carl Lewis, who landed four long jump golds between Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996, in the Olympic record books.
Having already won the 100m backstroke, Phelps’ team-mate Murphy completed the double with victory in the 200m, the 21-year-old recording a time of 1:53.62 to beat reigning 100m and 200m backstroke world champion Mitchell Larkin of Australian and 19-year-old Russian Evgeny Rylov, who posted a new European record of 1:53.97.
Only fourth at the first turn, Murphy was in the lead by the second and did not relinquish it, easily holding off Larkin, who atoned for his fourth place in the 100m with silver. A runner-up in that 100m final, China’s Xu Jiayu could only finish fourth, while Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, the second-fastest swimmer of all time in the event, came in eighth. “The two races were very different,” said Murphy. “The 100m is more my distance. You really have to dig a lot deeper in the 200m. I’ve been training harder in this event throughout the year. I wanted this one more and I think it means more to me.”
Singapore’s Joseph Schooling became an international sporting sensation when he consigned Phelps to a rare defeat in the men’s 100m butterfly and won a first ever gold for his country. The 21-year-old Schooling, who lives in the USA, set a new Olympic record of 50.39 seconds as he touched home first from Phelps, Chad Le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who all recorded a time of 51.14 in an unprecedented three-way dead-heat for silver.
Despite coming up short in his bid to win a fourth straight 100m butterfly gold, Phelps nevertheless had the satisfaction of collecting a 27th Olympic medal in his last individual event of his stellar career. Following an unusual medal ceremony, which saw the three silver medallists take to the podium together and no bronze being awarded, Schooling performed a victory lap with his childhood hero Phelps. Revealing what they spoke about, the Singaporean said: “I told him to keep going for another four years and he said: ‘No chance’. With a bit of luck, he’ll change his mind. It was neat. I loved racing with Michael.”
Reflecting on his farewell individual race, Phelps said: “Chad and me have had many races over these last four years, and Laszlo and me too. I can’t even remember the first time we raced. That makes it pretty special and it’s a nice way for me to end my individual career.”
Anthony Ervin of the USA reclaimed the mantle of fastest man in the water by taking the 50m freestyle gold, a full 16 years after he first won it. He did so by the slimmest of margins, edging out race favourite Florent Manaudou of France by one hundredth of a second. Nathan Adrian of the USA added a second bronze to the one he won in the 100m freestyle.
Eliminated in the semi-finals when Manadou won his world title in 2015, the 35-year-old Ervin was elated to be back on top of the podium and become swimming’s oldest ever Olympic champion: “It just so happened that I got my hand on the wall, one hundredth ahead of Florent, and you can’t control that. All I can control is how I do things, and I just feel really lucky that I had a great team of people, my people, to help me do it.”
Manaudou was hoping to become the first French swimmer to retain an Olympic title, a feat that also eluded his sister Laure at Beijing 2008. Unbeaten in major championships in the last two years, the man from Marseille made his intentions clear in the semi-finals by swimming 21.32, the fastest time in the world this year. “I came here to win but sometimes sport is about losing too. I don’t know if I’m going to keep on swimming. I need a break,” said the Frenchman.
All good things must come to an end, even for Phelps, who rounded off his amazing career by helping the USA to victory in the 4x100m medley. In doing so, Phelps scooped his 23rd Olympic gold and 28th medal in total, won over the course of four Games. The most decorated Olympian of all time, the Baltimore great swam the butterfly leg of what is traditionally the last event of the swimming programme. The Americans won in an Olympic record time of 3:27.95, with the British four of Chris Walker-Hebborn, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott claiming the silver ahead of the Australian quartet of Mitch Larkin, Jake Packard, David Morgan and Kyle Chalmers.
Following the last 100 metres of his career, Phelps climbed out of the pool to watch Nathan Adrian clinch the gold with his freestyle leg, before shedding a tear or two as the American national played during the medal ceremony. “That’s exactly how I wanted to finish my career. I couldn’t be happier” said Phelps, who admitted to feeling more emotional than he had four years previously in London, when he announced his first retirement, after taking his Olympic medal collection to 22. “It all started with that childhood dream of doing something no one else had ever done. To end the Games like this is perfect. I just want to start a new chapter in my life now.”
Phelps won six medals at Rio 2016, five of them gold, to go with the eight he won at Athens 2004 (six golds), eight at Beijing 2008 (all gold) and six at London 2012 (four golds). It was in the British capital that he set a new record for Olympic medals won by an athlete.