RIO de JANEIRO — When, oh when, will everyone learn to stop riling up Michael Phelps?
As the U.S. swim star Natalie Coughlin put it Tuesday night on Twitter, “Don’t poke the bear.”
In the latest chapter in a long-running story of what happens when you poke the bear, Phelps, obviously fired up by South African star Chad le Clos’ antics Monday in the ready room, won his 20th Olympic gold medal in the event that has seemingly forever meant the most to him and his family, the 200m butterfly.
Phelps went out hard, took the lead at 100 meters and hung on down the stretch in Tuesday night’s final to win in 1:53.36, punctuating an hour’s worth of action that saw some of the most thrilling racing in Olympic history.
Just before Phelps, Katie Ledecky dug deeper than she ever had to win the women’s 200m free, in 1:53.73. To close the night, the U.S. men, with Phelps dropping the hammer on the anchor, following Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte, raced to gold in the 4x200m free relay, in 7:00.66.
The relay gold is No. 21 for Phelps, 25th overall across five editions of the Games.
The 200m fly made for Phelps’ 14th career individual Olympic medal — tied with the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
Phelps said afterward that he had been talking with his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, about his — to switch to the plural pronouns Phelps used, their — medal haul: “That’s a lot of medals. We’ve got a lot of medals. It’s just insane.”
Lochte, meanwhile, passed Mark Spitz to become the second most-decorated male swimmer ever. Spitz won 11 medals. Lochte now has 12.
When they tell the story of this night at the Olympic Games, it will start with this: Phelps and Ledecky put on clinics. The lessons: pride, will and guts.
Then the conversation will turn to le Clos.
After shadow-boxing in front of Phelps before Monday’s racing in the ready room, a stunt that earned from Phelps a death glare that launched a thousand or more internet memes, le Clos took fourth Tuesday in the race that mattered, in 1:54.06.
Japan’s Masato Sakai closed fast for silver, 1:53.40. Hungary’s Támas Kenderesi got third, 1:53.62.
To be real: le Clos surely had to know that such a provocation would prove either brilliant or nuts.
Now we know the answer.
Where was le Clos’ self-discipline? Where was a coach to tell le Clos to knock that kind of stuff off?
For sure, Phelps saw some of the many #PhelpsFace memes that rocketed around the internet. “I’m rooming with him,” Dwyer said. “He was looking at them last night. He was laughing.”
Phelps, at an early Wednesday post-race news conference that at moments took on the tone of a confessional, said, “I didn’t say anything to anybody else but there wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing out there. And if I did, every ounce that I had was left in the pool.”
Calling the 200m fly his “bread and butter,” he also said, “That was the last time I’ll ever swim it. So kind of having that come to an end, it’s weird — it’s crazy to think about.”
Sixteen long years ago, at the Sydney Games, Phelps made his first Olympic appearance. He was just 15. He had qualified for just one event: the 200 fly. This was the event his sister, Whitney, had seemed destined to race at the Games before injury cut short her Olympic dream.
In Sydney, Phelps finished fifth.
The very next morning, Bowman had his teen prodigy in the water. It was time, Bowman said, to get to work.
The next April, Phelps broke the world record — for the first time — in the 200m fly. This started a run of years in which Phelps essentially owned the 200m fly.
Athens 2004, 200m fly: gold.
Beijing 2008, 200m fly: gold, and this in a race in which his goggles filled with water and Phelps literally had to count strokes. He finished that 2008 200m fly in 1:52.03, still the Olympic record, and was annoyed to no end that he did not yet again set the world mark. That he would do at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, going 1:51.51.
London 2012: 200m fly, silver. Not in optimal physical or mental shape, Phelps glided to the final wall. Charging, le Clos out-touched Phelps by five-hundredths of a second.
There can be no question that le Clos is an incredibly talented swimmer — inspired as he was by watching Phelps in Athens and then over the years honing his own craft. Here Monday, he took silver in the men’s 200m freestyle, behind China’s Sun Yang. From Lane 1. Indisputably impressive.
Then again, there was the 47.12 split Phelps turned in Sunday as part of the gold medal-winning U.S. men's 4x100m freestyle relay, his fastest ever, punctuated by a killer turn at 50 meter mark, which Bowman described as the best freestyle turn Phelps had ever executed in competition. What to say but – Phelps was ready to rock and roll?
So what could le Clos have been thinking with the shadow-boxing?
Phelps’ steely response was combination are-you-kidding and you-will-pay.
Last summer, after winning the 100m butterfly at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia — an event Phelps sat out amid USA Swimming-ordered sanctions following a second DUI incident — le Clos told Eurosport, “I just did a time that [Phelps] hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now.”
A few days later, at the U.S. nationals, Phelps beat le Clos’ time in the 100m fly. He then called le Clos’ comments “interesting,” saying, “It just fuels me. If you want to do it, go for it. I welcome it.”
“Chad was saying some stuff in the media,” Dwyer said. “Mike looks and watches that stuff all the time. I would never say anything about Mike in the media because he hates losing.
“I knew once Chad started opening his mouth, and shadow-boxing and stuff, I thought Mike might have a good shot at taking that one home.”
On Tuesday night, Phelps was second at 50 meters, took the lead on the second lap and had just enough left on laps three and four. His turn, so good in the relay, almost proved disastrous at 150 meters — Phelps almost ran into the wall and had to compensate, quick and hard.
Sakai was coming on hard. He had been sixth at the 150 turn, about a second behind Phelps.
Four years ago, Phelps lost to le Clos because he didn’t take an extra stroke at the final wall. Here, he took an extra half-stroke. In a race you win by four-hundredths, that’s the difference.
To use an NFL analogy, what Phelps did was a veteran move from the likes of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
“Same thing like I thought in ’08,” Phelps said, referring to the half-stroke he took at the end of the 100m fly in Beijing for victory. “I thought that cost me the race. That won me the race.”
When Phelps saw that he had won, he raised his hand in the No. 1 sign. He did a bicep pump. He showed want-to in a way that he maybe hadn’t been since he slapped the water in victory after that 2009 fly in Rome.
As for le Clos, it was clear down the final lap that he was cooked. Twice he raised his head up and to the left to check on Phelps in the next lane over.
What he saw — and will see forever, when he watches the video — is Phelps ahead. For good.
Revenge, redemption, whatever you want to call it — the greatest of all time did it again.
“Just to see No. 1 next to my name again in the 200m fly,” Phelps said, “I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Don’t poke the bear, people.
“He always delivers,” Ledecky said. “I’m so grateful to be on a team with him, and to see him dominate — like he always does.
“It’s just inspiring to everybody.”