Back at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Tuesday night, Michael Phelps will go for gold medal number 20 in the event that began his record-breaking Olympic career 16 years ago. In Sydney, the Maryland-native not only became the youngest man to make made the United States Olympic swim team since 1968 at the age of 15, but he would make the final in his only event, the 200-meter butterfly. While a medal was not forthcoming on that occasion, he has since gone on to dominate swimming and the 200m butterfly in particular.
In total, Phelps has won five World Championship golds in the event, as well as two Olympic golds. Going into the Olympic final in London four years ago, Phelps had never been beaten in a major international final and was seeking to become the first man to win three-straight gold medals in the same event. He led all the way, too, only to be denied victory in agonizing circumstances as South African Chad Le Close edged him at the very last by just 0.05 seconds.
On Tuesday the two men will face a rematch in Rio. And, if the semifinals were any indication, it promises to be quite the spectacle. The two men were drawn together in the semifinals on Monday and Le Clos was pulling out all the stops to try and get an early psychological edge, shadow boxing and parading theatrically right in front of his rival as the two prepared to make their entrance into the arena. Phelps, hood up, headphones on, did not shift his gaze other than for a brief dismissive glance Le Clos’ direction.
“I was trying not to really even look at him,” Phelps told NBC after the semifinal. “He does his thing, I do my thing. It’s always good to get in the water and race him. He’s tough. He finished on me last time really well. If I hit my turns the right way and swim the race I want to swim that’s all I can do.”
Phelps finished second in the semifinal behind Tamas Kenderesi who, along with fellow Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, could yet upset the Phelps versus Le Clos narrative. Le Clos was third in the semifinal, although the South African had only an hour earlier won silver in the 200m freestyle.
The 200m butterfly may be the event that matters most to Phelps this time around, but it is far from his only chance to add to his Olympic legacy in Rio. Already he has a gold medal to his name, having been a part of the American team that won the 4x100m freestyle relay. That means he has remarkably won 10 more golds than the next most successful Olympian of all time. His 23 medals also put him five clear of anyone else in history.
As Phelps looks to increase those records yet further, it is set to be a busy few days for the 31-year-old. Indeed, the 200m butterfly final may not be his only race on Tuesday, with many expecting him to be selected for the 200m freestyle relay final. On Wednesday he will be back in the pool for the heats and likely semifinals of the 200m individual medley. The final of that event will take place Thursday, when Phelps will also seek to reach Friday’s final of the 100m butterfly, an event in which Le Clos will again be his major rival.
Michael Phelps 2016 Rio Olympics Schedule (all times EDT)
9.28 p.m.: Men’s 200m butterfly final
10.38 p.m.: Men’s 4x200m freestyle relay final (possible)
1.09 p.m.: Men’s 200m individual medley heats
10.29 p.m.: Men’s 200m individual medley semifinals
1.16 p.m.: Men’s 100m butterfly heats
10.01 p.m.: Men’s 200m individual medley final
10.34 p.m.: Men’s 100m butterfly semifinals
9.12 p.m.: Men’s 100m butterfly final