If there was any doubt that Michael Phelps and Chad le Clos are not fond of each other, the camera in the ready room of the Olympic Aquatic Center captured photographic evidence on Monday night as the two swimmers prepared for the 200-meter butterfly semifinals.
Le Clos shadowboxed while Phelps, wearing a hooded jacket, sat on a folding chair and did a death stare into his South African rival’s back. The look was so frosty, it’s a wonder the pool didn’t freeze over. The 19-time Olympic gold medalist snarled, and the stare-down image went viral. Within a few hours, the #PhelpsFace meme was all over social media.
On Tuesday night, in one of the most anticipated swim races of these Rio Olympics, Phelps and le Clos duked it out in a final le Clos predicted last summer would be “Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.” The only thing missing was a weigh-in and Don King.
Phelps was in Lane 5. Le Clos in Lane 6. The U.S. men’s basketball team cheered for Phelps as he took the lead, and when the American touched the wall first, winning his 20th gold medal, he did a Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag. And then raised two index fingers in the air.
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Phelps posted a time of 1 minute 53.36 seconds, which was enough to hold off Masato Sakai of Japan, whose 1:53.40 was 0.04 seconds behind Phelps. Tamas Kenderesi of Hungary won the bronze medal in 1:53.62. Le Clos finished fourth, and congratulated Phelps.
“There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that event [Tuesday night],” Phelps said afterward. “I came into the pool on a mission, and that mission was accomplished. That race was my bread and butter, and just to see the No. 1 by my name in the 200 fly one last time, I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
The 31-year-old celebrated his victory by going to the stands to greet his family, and gave a kiss to his baby son, Boomer. He got misty-eyed on the medal podium as the national anthem played and the American flag rose up the flagpole. He then burst into laughter because his friends belted out “O!” during the anthem, a Baltimore Orioles tradition. (Phelps is from Baltimore.)
“When I heard it, I knew exactly who did it, and I couldn’t stop cracking up,” he said. “Took me right back to Camden Yards.”
And Phelps wasn’t done for the night. He won his 21st gold medal a little while later, as a member of the U.S. 800-meter freestyle relay team, along with Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte. They led at every split. Great Britain won silver, and Japan bronze.
American 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, who won the 200-meter freestyle gold medal just before Phelps’ race, said: “Michael has just won two gold medals and how old is he? Thirty-one? It’s crazy what he has pulled off. I cannot wait to see what he will do the rest of the week.”
Kenderesi added: “Michael was my biggest idol when I was a child. I wanted another picture with him on the medal stand. He won twice [Tuesday night]. It’s just Michael. I’m not surprised.”
The rivalry seeds between Phelps and le Clos were planted four years ago at the London Olympics when le Clos beat Phelps for the gold medal by five-hundredths of a second. It was Phelps’ first loss in his signature event in a decade, an event in which he still holds the Olympic and world record. Phelps announced his retirement after the 2012 Olympics.
“What happened four years ago really stuck with me,” Phelps said Tuesday night. “This is a race I really wanted back.”
In 2014, he announced he was returning to the sport. He initially said he wouldn’t race the 200-meter butterfly but later changed his mind. In May 2015, he said he would compete in the event because the other swimmers’ times “are really not that fast.”
That did not sit well with le Clos.
During the 2015 World Championships last August, in which Phelps was not allowed to swim because of a DUI suspension, le Clos said of his American rival: “I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form, so he can’t come out and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been training’ or all that rubbish that he’s been talking. Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.”
Phelps’ response? “There are a lot of things I could say. But I won’t. I’m going to let what I do in the pool do my talking.”
In addition to wanting to beat his toughest competition, le Clos has been motivated by a more personal issue. Both of his parents are battling cancer. His father, Bert, whose animated interviews made him a media favorite in London, has prostate cancer and underwent surgery last month. His mother, Geraldine, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, had a double mastectomy and was in remission, but it has recently returned and she is undergoing chemotherapy.
In the other big race Tuesday night, America’s latest swim darling Ledecky won the gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle, considered her toughest event. It was her second gold medal of these Games, and she also won a silver in a relay.
Fifth after the first 50 meters, Ledecky surged to second by the halfway point and never trailed again. She recorded a winning time of 1:53.73, 0.35 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom. Emma McKeon of Australia won the bronze medal.
Ledecky had smashed her world record in the 400-meter freestyle on Sunday night. It was the 12th world record she has set since the 2012 Olympics, when she won the 800 free as a 15-year-old.
“That hurt pretty badly,” Ledecky said after the race. “It’s the closest I’ve come to throwing up at the end of a race. I was just glad to get my hand on the wall first. It was a stressful race and I feel good now it’s over. I took it pretty fast and forced everyone and once I was ahead I was not going to let it out of my hands.”