LONDON — Michael Phelps arrived at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 a gawky 15-year-old with braces and big dreams. He went home bragging to friends about meeting Mia Hamm and Vince Carter. Twelve years later, he is a multimillionaire swimming icon and will leave the London Olympics as the most decorated Olympian of all time in any sport.
He anchored the U.S. to a gold medal in the 4x200 freestyle relay on Tuesday night, his 15th career gold medal and 19th overall, surpassing former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who collected 18 medals between 1956 and 1964. Her record stood 48 years, and it is a safe bet to assume Phelps' mark will be tough to top. He has three races left this week.
Phelps has won 15 golds, two silvers and two bronzes. If he were a country, he'd be ranked between Jamaica (13) and Argentina (17) for most gold medals.
"There are a lot of emotions going on right now," Phelps said about an hour after his historic medal. "It's a cool feeling. I'm sure I'll be able to put it into words better in a few weeks."
The Olympic Aquatic Center crowd gave him a rousing ovation, and Phelps hung on the red lane rope taking in the moment, a huge smile on his face. He had a two-second lead when he took over the final leg, and led the team to an easy victory in 6:59.70. Ryan Lochte swam leadoff, and the other legs were swum by Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens.
"Michael thanked us for helping make him the most decorated Olympic athlete ever," Berens said. "To be a part of a team who won a gold medal is just another thing I am going to tell my kids about. It's really incredible."
During the medal ceremony, Phelps joked around and laughed when some Americans in the crowd chanted "Four more years!"
Phelps' mood improved considerably from earlier in the night, when he was out-touched by South African Chad le Clos in the final of the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps' signature event. Phelps settled for a silver medal, and the fact that he lost the race at the finish was surprising because he is known as a master at the wall.
He tossed his goggles into the water and walked past reporters without talking after the race.
The result was reminiscent of the 100-meter butterfly final in Beijing 2008 when Phelps somehow took the gold medal from Serbia's Milorad Cavic by just one hundredth of a second by lunging on the final stroke.
His mistake on Tuesday caused him to lose by .05 seconds. Takeshi Matsuda of Japan took bronze.
"I glided into the wall, that's a decision I made, and I'm not going to make excuses," Phelps said. "Sometimes in practice I have been lazy at the wall, and I made that decision and I'm OK with it. Chad is a very hungry kid and he got his hand on the wall first. It was a little frustrating, but I had to put it behind me. I didn't want to let the ( relay) team down."
Le Clos was as astounded as anyone by his victory.
"It's been a dream of mine ever since I was a little boy. I just wanted to race Phelps in the final and I've beaten him. I have beaten the greatest swimmer of all time. I can't believe it," le Clos said. "Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can't believe it. You don't understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life."
Berens said the mistake in the 200 butterfly might have benefited the relay team.
"Michael is not the guy who likes to lose, especially to be out touched like that. A mad Michael Phelps is a good one to have on the relay team."
In the women's 200-meter freestyle, American Allison Schmitt of Canton, Mich., won the gold medal in Olympic record time (1:53.61) and 17-year-old Missy "The Missile" Franklin didn't make the medal podium. Schmitt was 1.97 seconds ahead of France's Camille Muffat, who took the silver with a 1:55.58. Australia's Bronte Barratt won the bronze medal with a 1:55.81, beating Franklin (Centennial, Colo.) by 0.01.
Sixteen-year-old Chinese sensation Ye Shiwen won her second gold medal in the 200 individual medley. Her remarkable rise has drawn suspicion from some officials and media members, but she said that hasn't affected her.
Earlier in the day, representing his home country of Grenada, Nova Southeastern University swimmer Esau Simpson won his heat in the 100-meter freestyle time trials. That time is also a new Grenadian national record.
"Esau's hard work and focus this season leading up to the Olympic Games gave him the confidence and stamina to achieve a best time and break the Grenadian national record," said Nova Southeastern head coach Hollie Bonewit-Cron. "I am extremely proud of his performance and what it will mean in bringing about greater success in the future for him. He has made Grenada, the NSU Sharks, and especially me very proud."