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Michael Phelps earns well-deserved place in Olympic history

Michael Phelps (from left) Conor Dwyer Ryan Lochte Ricky Berens wgold 4x200 freestyle relay. | Mark J. Terrill~AP

Michael Phelps (from left), Conor Dwyer, Ryan Lochte and Ricky Berens won gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay. | Mark J. Terrill~AP

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Updated: September 2, 2012 6:20AM

LONDON — He walked onto the pool deck the way he usually does, mouth open like the fish he is and headphones clamped to his ears.

An hour before, he had won silver in the 200-meter butterfly and now he was ready to set the record for the most medals in Olympic history. He shared the mark of 18 medals with former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, and although he surely had endless reservoirs of respect for Ms. Latynina, it was time to take a foot to some butt. That’s how he has always rolled.

First, though, he huddled with his 4-x-200 freestyle teammates — Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer of Winnetka and Ricky Berens. No rah-rah speech. No testosterone rush. Just gratitude.

“I thanked those guys for helping me get to this moment,’’ he said. “I told those guys I wanted a big lead: ‘You better give me a biiiiiiiiiig lead going into the last leg.’ They gave it to me. I just wanted to hold on.’’

He did, swimming the last leg and bringing home the gold for the United States, three seconds ahead of second-place France.

Then he let out a rebel yell, though it was hard to gauge its decibel level, what with the crowd roaring like a freight train at the Olympic Aquatics Centre.

Phelps set the all-time medal record of 19 Tuesday night with his career fading, and that’s OK. At 27, his career should be flickering. Nobody should be this good for this long. But even as he fades, he’ll leave a long comet tail behind him.

He has been amazing, not just for his superior talent but for his staying power. The amount of time, energy and determination it takes to be a champion swimmer is immense. The tedium of being in the pool hour after hour, day after day, year after year would bring most people to tears.

For one five-year stretch, Phelps did not miss a day of practice. Not one day.

Now think of putting in that kind of effort for 12 years of world-class competition and staying on top.

“The biggest thing that I’ve always said is anything is possible,’’ he said late Tuesday night. “I’ve put my mind on doing something that nobody had ever done before, and there was nothing that was going to stand in my way of being the first Michael Phelps. That’s what I said all along. This has been an amazing ride.’’

He built his sport to whatever it is now. You might not have paid much attention to swimming between Olympics, but you paid attention to Phelps. His thinking was the generous opposite of that: If you pay attention to me, you’ll pay attention to all these other talented swimmers. Oh, he wanted to beat all of them, wanted to crush them into sand, but he wanted his sport to grow like algae.

By the end, you didn’t know where Phelps began and swimming ended, or vice versa.

He grew up in front of us, from a gangly, nasally 15-year-old with braces at the 2000 Olympics to a man. He wasn’t flawless. There were those photos of his mouth on the business end of a bong. He rarely let anyone inside his world, especially the media. Did some of us get tired of NBC showing his cheering mother in the stands over and over all these years? Bone tired. But the network saw a great swimmer who didn’t have the most sparkling personality and chose to hammer the hell out of the back story — the story of a single mom raising a superstar.

In recent years, he had dropped off in his training, which was a healthy thing. There is more to life than swallowing chlorinated water. Did he squander opportunities? Nobody knows, and nobody should really care. Nineteen medals are enough. Six gold medals in 2004, a record eight gold in 2008 and now this one. That should last the rest of his life, don’t you think?

It looked like he would get another one in the 200 fly Tuesday night. He had set the last eight world records in the event, so if there were one race that looked like a shoo-in for him, this would have been it. He led most of the way before South Africa’s Chad le Clos out-touched him in the end. The old Phelps wouldn’t have let that happen. The older Phelps did.

“I couldn’t really believe it,’’ Clos said. “I’ve watched all his races like a million times. I guess now I can watch my own race.’’

The result wasn’t what Phelps wanted, but the effort was. The competition is why he got into the sport and why he stayed in it so long. It would have been grander if he had won, the lion going out with a roar in that event, but this was fine. The lion went out with a labored grunt. He tried.

He has three more races — the 200 IM, the 100 fly and the 4-x-100 medley relay. His work here isn’t done. But he can see the end.

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