London 2012: Michael Phelps has officially become the greatest Olympian ever after winning his 19th medal in the 4x200m relay. Photograph: Tom Jenkins
Twenty years after he first began to swim in suburban Baltimore, as a seven-year-old boy whose mother thought a pool might be the one place where he could conquer his chaotic excess of energy, Michael Phelps officially became the greatest Olympian in history. At exactly 9.04on Tuesday night, during a tumultuous session at the Aquatics Centre in Stratford, Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal, and his first gold of these Games, in the 4x200m relay.
He had finally broken the record held by Larisa Latynina. The gymnast from the former Soviet Union was awarded the last of her 18 medals in 1964. But Phelps's extraordinary feat was layered with the ambivalence of earlier shock and disappointment – as a much younger and uncelebrated rival stripped away his old invincibility.
Phelps had equalled Latynina's tally an hour before he swept past it. But a twist was buried deep inside a moment that was meant to be swathed in glory. The 200m butterfly, the event that has belonged to him for over a decade, ended in defeat and a silver medal when the South African Chad le Clos produced a blistering finish that just beat Phelps to the wall.
It was a conclusion that defined the exhilaration and pathos of sport. One of his greatest triumphs as an Olympian was entwined with a loss in a discipline in which he was meant to be indestructible. Undefeated at every Olympic and world championship final in the 200m butterfly since 2001, Phelps had not found the expected refuge from recent doubts and disappointments. The familiar embrace of his old supremacy had been ripped away from him the 20-year-old Le Clos.
"The pool," Phelps once said, "is a safe haven. Two walls at either end, lane lines on both sides, and a black stripe on the bottom for direction."
For the first 170m it did not look as if this giant of the water needed any of those black-striped pointers. Phelps spread the full might of his 6ft 7ins-wide wingspan and appeared on course for another inevitable win with his favourite version of butterfly. But Le Clos could not be broken. Suddenly, as the South African's surge gathered momentum, his own huge arms held the attention. He edged closer and closer but, with just 10 metres of water left, Phelps looked as if he might hang on to his title. Le Clos, however, drove still harder and won in a time of 1.52.96 – five hundredths of a second ahead of Phelps.
Le Clos's disbelief was plain and he only seemed able to fathom the depth of his victory when Phelps eventually paddled across the lanes to congratulate him. Le Clos, with his mixture of tears and laughter, could be forgiven for thinking only of his own first Olympic medal – rather than Phelps's iconic 18th.
This has been a strange and often uneasy Olympic Games for Phelps. He had cut a dejected figure on the opening night of London 2012 when he finished in a dispiriting fourth place in the 400m individual medley. The winner of that race, his team-mate Ryan Lochte, was hailed again as the new king of the pool. Meanwhile the old monarch, Phelps, reacted bluntly. "It was just a crappy race," he said.
It was the first time Phelps had failed to win a medal in an Olympic final since his debut at the age of 15 in 2000. At those Olympics in Sydney, Phelps's mother, Debbie, knew that his diagnosed ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) was helped by a total immersion in swimming. His anger towards his father, Fred, who had separated from his mother, was also soothed in the pool.
"I've always felt most at home in the water," Phelps once said at the height of his powers. "I disappear from the world. That's where I belong."
The long slow buildup to these Olympics had suggested the opposite. In the years after the record haul in Beijing in 2008, it often looked as if Phelps had grown bored of laying waste to rivals. Clearly, he was sick of the unremitting training schedule that underpinned his great prowess. The boy who once could not concentrate for long on anything had become a man of singular focus – but, in the wake of Beijing, and the six gold and two bronze medals he had also won in Athens in 2004, Phelps had almost had enough of a fixation with victory.
Somehow, a gluttonous craving still lingered and Phelps, in a surreal if telling suggestion, said of his quest to win still more medals in London: "It is really how many toppings do I want on my sundae? That's what I'm doing."
Phelps scooped up his first silver-coloured topping at London 2012 on Sunday night in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Swimming much more powerfully than the previous night Phelps, in the second leg, carved out a sizeable lead for the US – only to share everyone's surprise when Lochte was blitzed over the last 100m by France's Yannick Agnel. Phelps managed to sound as if he had found some pleasurable novelty in finishing second. "It's my first silver medal," he said in a soft exclamation as he looked at a colour which has since become more familiar.
The medal that shattered Latynina's record was a more fitting gold – as the US gained a measure of revenge over France. Significantly, Phelps was chosen to swim the last leg against Agnel, who had already won two golds at these Games.
But Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens presented Phelps with a relatively simple task. He began his own four lengths of the pool with a comfortable lead and even Agnel, who swam faster than Phelps, could not do more than eat into a small chunk of that gap.
As he touched the wall first Phelps knew that he had picked out two prize cherry-toppings for his big Olympic sundae. He had also enshrined his legacy with another historic seal. Some critics, many of whom have rarely had the privilege of watching Phelps swim in the blurring flesh, will continue to argue that it has been somehow "easier" for him to win such a dizzying amount of medals in a sport like swimming. But seeing him compete voraciously over the years in styles and distances which have tested his speed, endurance and desire has provided an unforgettable insight into his monumental achievement.
At the end, as victory settled over him in the pool, Phelps looked up at the curving arch of the Aquatic Centre and shot a small fountain of water from his mouth into the air.
Then, wearily but happily, he draped himself over the red lane divider and treaded water with his size 14 feet. His team-mates whooped and held their arms in the air. Phelps, before joining the celebrations, looked across his gleaming kingdom of water. The end is almost upon him as a swimmer; but, on a night of tangled and intense emotion, Olympic history finally belonged to Michael Phelps.
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