With golden finish, Michael Phelps passes torch to America's rising stars

Michael Phelps won his last individual race, the 100-meter butterfly, on a night when two of America's rising stars, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, also took gold.

Tim Wimborne/REUTERS
Michael Phelps spits out water next to South Africa's Chad le Clos after winning gold in the men's 100-meter butterfly final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre. Le Clos won the silver, and Phelps has tipped him as a rising star.

We are pretty sure that Michael Phelps was being humble. But for the rest of the world, that really only makes it worse. 

"If I wanted to swim faster, I should have prepared better," he said after swimming the final individual race of his professional life, the 100-meter butterfly. 

Bear in mind, he had just won the race.

It was a glimpse of the mindset that had made Beijing possible – a determination that, in the years before 2008, he would do whatever necessary to swim as fast as humanly possible. And he did.

But Phelps's comment Friday was also confirmation that he, even at some fraction of his best, is still too good for the rest of the world. 

On the first night of these Games, when Phelps swam to a fourth-place finish, we could not know what it meant. Now, Phelps himself has answered all questions, first with this swimming, but now, here at the end, even with his words. 

The long distances – the 400 meters in the individual medley and the 200 meters of the butterfly – got the best of him. In his words, he might have said, "If I really wanted to win those races, I should have prepared better."

But over the shorter distances, the year of intensive training that he has put in since being hung out like a cured ham by Ryan Lochte at the world championships has been enough. And that, in a way, is remarkable.

South African Chad le Clos wants to be Michael Phelps – has put in four years of work and done everything short of developing his own Phelpsian permasmirk in an effort to do just that. That four years won him 0.01 seconds over Phelps in the 200 fly.

But over 100 meters? One year was enough for Phelps. Le Clos came joint second with Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin, 0.23 seconds back. 

And Lochte himself? Flipping tires and ratting chains like Jacob Marley in a Speedo, trying to ward off the ghost of disappointing Olympics past, won him a laugher in the 400 IM. In the 200 IM, he was still ploughing through Phelps's wake.

Beneath the surface, the old Phelps is still in the hard wiring – a bug that was not removed for Phelps 2.0. "I don't even want to complain about going slower or having a bad turn, I'm just happy that last one was a win," he said Friday. 

But you see, he kind of was complaining. He was acknowledging that he was not up to his own standard, and then absolving himself. And pity the poor swimmers who still couldn't beat him.

In Beijing in this very event, Serb Milorad Cavic came closest to beating Phelps, touching the wall just 0.01 seconds later. Friday, he was fourth, and in some state approaching awe. 

"I cannot believe Phelps," he said. "I'm a one-trick pony, and he's the king."

Names to watch

It was, in ways more than the obvious, a fitting night to cap Phelps's Olympic career. For one, he swam next to le Clos, whom he called the future of the sport. Indeed, for those wondering where the sport goes now, the answers were shiny, and golden, and right in front of your face atop the medal stand. 

First, there was the 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who managed the disappointment of having won only three medals at these Games by winning a fourth – the 200-meter backstroke – in world record time. 

Then, there was Katie Ledecky, the 15-year-old American who broke British hearts with a gold-medal-winning 800-meter freestyle, which left the favorite, Briton Rebecca Adlington, huffing 5.69 seconds behind in bronze-medal position. 

If swimming had batons, Phelps would have passed it to her in the moment before she jumped into the pool. 

"Michael is the first Olympian I ever met when I was six, right before I started swimming," Ledecky said. "So to hear good luck from him before the race was really cool."

Yes, another American atop the podium Friday night met Olympian Michael Phelps before she started swimming. 

Maybe it truly is time to retire. 

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