The United States has long been dominant in the swimming pool at the Olympics, but it has few moments to rival what happened on Tuesday.
The men's 4x200 relay team and its predominant, most decorated swimmer symbolically accomplished something that will be remembered for decades.
Michael Phelps and his teammates -- Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, Conor Dwyer -- won gold, giving Phelps his 19th career Olympic medal and his 15th overall gold, passing Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina in the former; he's held the latter mark since Beijing. The team finished in less than seven minutes (6:59.70), absolutely laying waste to the competition. From my end, it was the most impressive race we've seen from any American swimming contingent at this year's Games, save for maybe Missy Franklin's record-setting swim from Monday.
France took second in the relay (7:02.77), China third (7:06.77).
To give you an idea of Phelps' accomplishment and just how big this is, consider Ryan Lochte, currently seen as the best swimmer in the world (and even that is arguable at the moment) who has just nine medals total. He's not even halfway to Phelps' location on the all-time list -- and he's older than Phelps.
An uplifting aspect of this Phelps swim: he swam the fastest leg, 1:44.05, of any of his teammates. And that's especially impressive considering he was given such a mammoth lead by the time his anchor chase was up. He wanted a big lead, had it, and didn't let up at all. A very powerful swim in a very significant moment.
That said, Olympic competition contains so much of the bittersweet. After all, winning a silver is so spectacular -- but it's not the gold. So with that in mind, I can't help but think what Phelps' emotions were like, having broken this record yet only taking silver in the 200-meter butterfly an hour before. How should he feel about failing in his best event, yet setting a record that's not likely to fall any time soon, all within 60 minutes of each other?
The most decorated American swimmer in history was less than half a stroke away from winning his first first-place prize at these Games on Tuesday, but was overtaken by South African Chad le Clos, who closed with incredible speed in the 200-meter butterfly.
Phelps wound up taking the silver due to an amateur mistake of sorts. Instead of gliding through his final power stroke, Phelps brought back his arms for one more push through the water, perhaps not realizing how much space he had left to touch the wall -- or how close le Clos was to beating him. Phelps' last arm revolution allowed le Clos to push through and touch the wall in 1:52.96. Phelps touched in 1:53.01, five one-hundredths of a second behind.
Phelps was also attempting to become the first swimmer to win the same event three times at the Olympics. No more.
To add a bit more perspective on Phelps' gaffe, it's not unfair to say the last 10 meters for Phelps is akin to Kobe Bryant blowing a game-winning shot, only that shot being a botched dunk that clanked off the back of the rim as time expired.
Takeshi Matsuda of Japan won bronze with his 1:53.21 swim. American Tyler Clary finished fifth (1:55.06).
It's the first time Phelps hasn't won the event in the Olympics since 2000. The 200 fly is considered Phelps' strongest race, so the second-place finish is relatively shocking. To put it frankly: There were doubts about Phelps' dedication to his training leading up to the Olympics, and now that we've seen him finish out of the medaling in one race (400-meter IM) and blow lead in his strongest swim in another ... it's equal parts disappointing and unsurprising.
Yet we're still referring to Michael Freaking Phelps. The dopey-looking robo-swimmer who's inspired a generation's worth of boys and girls to get in the pool and paddle toward something new in their life. And the silver the 200 fly is now but a footnote to Tuesday's biggest accomplishment, which spans all the way back to Athens, when his first medal was won in 2004.
Phelps getting to this point is huge for USA Swimming, for the swimming world in general, for American sports and for the Olympics. It's why I and many others have maintained that his legacy would not be affected by a fourth-place finish here or a silver medal there. Yeah, it's not perfection for Phelps in London, but it's continued dominance as a whole. And in the immediacy of the accomplishment, most everyone is recognizing just how stupid-good Phelps has been at swimming, doing it so well for so long and so much better than any human ever has.
He deserves this day and all the praise and headlines. We could all very well live and die before another American -- or anyone -- gets this many medals this many golds. He can be ticked to hell about the 200 fly and elated and relieved about the 19 medals all at once. That's the quirky rhythm of swim competition and the aggregate benefits of years worth of work. Phelps will probably go to bed tonight wrestling with the accomplishment and the disappointment all at once. In a lot of ways, this is all very unfamiliar for him -- and for us.