LONDON - Michael Phelps likens his Olympic career to an ice cream sundae. The question, he said before London, was what kind of toppings he'd put on it.
Tuesday, we found out: History, layered in silver and gold.
He isn't perfect anymore. That was Beijing. But he is the best there ever was. The medal count says so.
His silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly, and gold with his teammates in the 4x200 freestyle relay, gave Phelps his 18th and 19th Olympic medals, tying and then surpassing former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for earning the most of all time.
Phelps, 27, is the suburban Baltimore kid who took up swimming at 7 as an outlet for his energy. He grew up in our living rooms, from a 15-year-old in the 2000 Sydney Games to a submarine sandwich pitchman after his gold rush in China.
On Tuesday, his relay teammates staked him to a big lead and Phelps held it. "I started smiling with 20 meters to go," he said. "It's the first time I think I've ever done that in a race."
In the 200 butterfly, though, the last few meters are what cost him: Phelps glided to the wall, a critical mistake. He copped to it after, admitting it's a habit he has tried to break.
"Not too fun to be on the other side of those," said his coach, Bob Bowman. "He just timed it a little long. He was pretty tired at the end."
Said Phelps, "Obviously, I would have liked to have a better outcome. I was on the receiving end of being touched out."
His point: Everything broke his way in Beijing, where two of his eight gold medals in eight races came on touch-outs. This time he was on the other side, by 0.05 of a second.
The relay wasn't close.
"I told those guys I wanted a big lead: 'You better give me a biiig lead,' " Phelps said, grinning widely. "And they gave it to me. So I just wanted to hold on. And I thanked them for being able to allow me to have this moment."
The humility in that echoed.
"It has been a pretty amazing career," he said. And who could argue?
If you're keeping score at home, Tuesday brings his precious medal count to 15 gold, two silver, two bronze. By the numbers, that makes him the greatest Olympian since Pindar was writing lyric victory odes in ancient Greece.
But this was not how Pindar would have scripted this one. South Africa's Chad le Clos caught Phelps, just as Phelps had caught a gliding Milorad Cavic by 0.01 of a second in the 100 butterfly in Beijing.
"Chad swam a great race," Phelps said. "I've gotten to know him a little in the last year. He's a hard worker. He's a tough competitor. He's a racer."
On the victory stand, le Clos cried as his anthem played. When the medalists posed for a photo, Phelps held his medal up and noticed le Clos still had his hanging from his neck. Phelps tapped him and showed him what to do, one racer to another.
"I'm his biggest fan," le Clos said. "He's definitely the greatest of all time."
Bowman, Phelps' coach since boyhood, knew how much the loss hurt. "He was very upset at first," Bowman said. "Not like crying upset, angry upset. We just had to come to grips with the fact that that was that, and we had this relay coming up.
"He just got in the warm-down pool and started swimming. Really, within five minutes he had gotten his composure and he was ready to go."
Phelps said he choked up on the medal stand with his relay teammates: "Before I got up on the podium, I said, 'Sorry, boys, I'm not going to be able to sing this with you. There are too many emotions going on. I won't be able to get a word out.' I tried to hold myself together as much as I could. My eyes were getting watery."
In Beijing, he had the air of an automaton that couldn't lose. Here, his eyes water. He is laughing and joking and soaking it in, enjoying his last ride. Was he superman then and a regular guy now? Phelps looked amused at the thought. "I've been a human being my whole life," he said.
An audacious achievement
Beijing was about perfection. None since Neptune had held such dominion over water.
London is about history. But it offers perspective on perfection, too.
What Phelps accomplished in Beijing was one step beyond American Mark Spitz's seven-for-seven gold medal triumph in Munich in 1972. But perfection in swimming is an illusion.
Listen to gold medalists, and they'll almost always point at something they could have done just a trifle better, meaning next time, even after a world record, maybe they can go even faster.
Phelps' feat in Beijing seems too easy in memory. Here at the Aquatics Centre is daily proof of the audacity of his accomplishment. The Aussies were supposed to be a sure thing in the 4x100 freestyle relay yet finished fourth. Teammate and rival Ryan Lochte, after his win in the 400-meter individual medley, was supposed to emerge as the sports' shiniest star, supplanting Phelps. Then he got trumped two nights running by French foe Yannick Agnel.
Phelps himself came in fourth, out of the medals, in the 400 individual medley. He came in second with his glide at the finish of the 200 butterfly.
That hurt. Phelps built his reputation on the butterfly. The familiar image we have of Phelps rising powerfully out of the water, his elongated wingspan churning water, is in the butterfly. Or "fly," as swimmers call it. Phelps likes to say he comes from a family of flyers.
It hurt doubly because he badly wanted to win the 200 fly for a third successive Olympics. No man has won an individual event in three consecutive Games. Phelps failed twice here. He'll have two more chances. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima failed once here and gets another chance today.
Thus far, no defending Olympic champion has retained his or her title.
And he's not finished
Beijing: Eight races, eight gold. London, four races, one gold, two silver, one fourth, with three races yet to come.
Phelps still has the 200-meter indivual medley today and Thursday, when he can even the score with Lochte, who beat him in the 400-meter IM on the first night of the meet; the 100-meter butterfly, his favorite stroke once more, on Thursday and Friday; and Saturday's 4x100 medley relay, the valedictory moment of an Olympic career like no other.
Should he win medals in all three, as expected, he'd leave London with 22 career medals, as many as 18 of them gold. Bowman said at the Olympic trials that maybe Phelps could get so many here that no one will ever catch him.
But never is a long time. Latynina's medal count probably looked unbreakable when she won her medals in the 1950s and 1960s. Olympic historian Bill Mallon thinks, in the fullness of time, Phelps' medal count could be reached by another phenom some day.
"Obviously, it will be a difficult record to break and will be way 'out there,' " Mallon said via e-mail. "But I don't think it will be unbreakable."
Bowman said Tuesday that he hoped it would stand for a long time. He also said London had made him appreciate how hard it was to win.
"I thought it used to be easy," Bowman said. "Now it's, like, 'Ooh, let's get a medal.' ... It underscores how difficult it is to win a medal of any color at this event. It's getting harder and harder."
Erik Brady, USA TODAY