At the London Olympics yesterday, he did everything he could to win but suffered his second defeat in as many days when the American team gambled and lost.
In an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, France beat the United States in the final of the men’s 4×100 meters freestyle, coming from a seemingly hopeless position to take the gold in a heart-stopping finish.
Four years ago, Phelps won an unprecedented eight golds in Beijing, including the men’s relay when Jason Lezak famously mowed down Alain Bernard on the last lap.
This time, it was the French that got their hands on the wall first when Yannick Agnel unleashed an incredible anchor leg to reel in Ryan Lochte, who was called into the American team for the final ahead of Lezak and the other sprint specialists who contested the heats.
France won a second gold at America’s expense on Sunday when Camille Muffat fought off a ferocious challenge from Allison Schmitt to win the 400 freestyle final in four minutes, 01.45 seconds.
Muffat had to draw on all her reserves of strength to win the grueling eight-lap race as Schmitt, who trains alongside Phelps in Baltimore, desperately tried to catch her only to end up with the silver medal.
Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, the Beijing champion, finished strongly to get the bronze, giving the home-nation their first medal in London’s Aquatic Centre on an electrifying night that produced two world records.
Dana Vollmer ended a lifetime of frustration and serious battles with her health to win the 100 butterfly gold and break another of the supposedly untouchable world records set during the 2009 world championships in Rome at the height of the bodysuit controversy.
The American, who used to take a defibrillator to her races because of a heart condition, swam like a woman possessed, powering to victory in 55.98 seconds, slicing 0.08 off the previous mark set by Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom.
China’s Lu Ying finished second while Australia’s Alicia Coutts, a relay gold medalist on Saturday, was third despite vomiting halfway through the race.
South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh broke the world record to win the 100m breaststroke final.
Van der Burgh charged through the first lap at breakneck speed then gulping air, he held off his pursuers in the last length to reach the wall in 58.46 seconds.
His time trimmed 0.12 seconds off the previous world record of 58.58 set by Australia’s Brenton Rickard in Rome, who could only manage sixth.
Australia’s Christian Sprenger took the silver medal while American Brendan Hansen was third as an exhausted van der Burgh celebrated becoming the first South African man to win an individual Olympic swimming title by laying down on the lane ropes and staring at the wave-shaped ceiling.
Phelps and Lochte did not compete in the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials but were fast-tracked into the team for the final even though there were some doubts about both of them.
Phelps finished out of the medals in Saturday’s 400 individual medley, won by Lochte, who normally does not swim in the sprint relay and had to back up less than an hour after competing in the semi-finals of the 200 freestyle.
The lone consolation for Phelps was that he collected his first silver medal in four appearances at the Olympics.
With his 14 golds and two bronzes, he has a total of 17, just one short of the all-time record.