LONDON -- Michael Phelps stood on the podium and tried to put on a happy face after the 200-meter butterfly. But his forced smile didn't hide the fact that he was less than thrilled to be standing a step below South Africa's Chad le Clos.
"Sure, I was upset. I wasn't happy," Phelps said.
The story ends with Phelps living happily ever after.
He made history in the last race Tuesday night by anchoring the gold-medal-winning 4x200 free relay team. It was Phelps' 19th career medal, an Olympic record.
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But it was Phelps' earlier performance in the 200 fly, when he lost the gold (as opposed to winning the silver), that made both him and his accomplishment more appreciated.
"That was kind of heartbreaking, right? Did you see that on the awards stand?" asked Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "He immediately got in and swam down, got ready for the relay. He put up one of the best relay splits ever done to win the team a gold medal. ... It showed how he's matured and understands what the process is really about."
In Athens, Phelps was almost perfect in becoming the first to win eight medals, including six golds, in a non-boycotted Olympics. In Beijing, he was perfect, with eight gold medals in eight races.
This Olympics, he has been human.
Phelps, 27, suffered three disappointments in his first three races. He didn't even medal in the 400 IM, finishing fourth. Then he and his 400-meter freestyle relay teammates were beaten by the French.
Before being outtouched by le Clos in the 200 fly, Phelps had owned the event in winning the past two Olympic gold medals.
"I know it makes me appreciate it more," Bowman said. "I thought it used to be easy. Now, it's like, 'Come on, Michael, get a medal!' I thought the golds used to come easily. It underscores how difficult it is to win a medal of any color at this event, and it's getting harder and harder, and anyone who gets any kind of medal should be highly celebrated."
Phelps has 15 gold medals, two silver and two bronze, and he should leave here with three more. After surpassing Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals, Phelps soaked in the moment.
"Being able to do something that nobody has ever done before, that is what I always have said I wanted to do," Phelps said.
Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever, the greatest Olympian ever, but he no longer is invincible.
Le Clos grew up idolizing Phelps. He said he has watched Phelps' victory over Milorad Cavic from four years ago multiple times in multiple languages. Phelps beat the Serbian by .01 of a second in the 200 fly in Beijing.
The race Tuesday was the same, only with a different winner, as le Clos beat his role model by .05 of a second. Bowman said Phelps' stroke count was "different," and that Phelps was noticeably tired on the last lap. Phelps took 20 strokes on the second lap, 21 on the third and used 22 for the final lap.
"I know that after the 200 fly, looking back and gliding into the wall, I'm not going to sit and make excuses," Phelps said. "Those are things I work on in workout. There are times where I've come sort of lazy into the wall, and that came out at the moment that I needed it the most. I understand that, and I'm OK with it. It's the decision I made to do that for so many workouts and so many finishes."
Phelps rebounded an hour later to swim a 1:44.05 split in the 4x200 free relay, but he was given a lead he couldn't lose, and he broke into a wide smile with 25 meters to go.
"It's the first time I think I have ever done that in a race," Phelps said. "I saw that we had won. ... I knew we had done it."
Phelps gathered his relay teammates in a circle and thanked them.
"It's usually us thanking him," Ricky Berens said.
Phelps is enjoying this Olympics more than he did in '04 or '08. It might explain why he is not faring as well. His preparation and his focus aren't the same. It also might be that the world is catching up.
The bottom line is: Michael Phelps no longer is THE best swimmer in the world, but he is the best swimmer ever and will be, likely, forever.