LONDON (Reuters) - Competitive fires that appeared to be flickering and fading, burst into glorious flame on Thursday when Michael Phelps finally won his first individual gold medal of the London Olympics.
Phelps convincingly defeated fellow-American Ryan Lochte, the pretender to his 200 meters individual medley title, leading all the way through each of the four strokes.
He also became the first man to win three consecutive Olympic titles, joining Australia’s Dawn Fraser and Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi.
“It’s just cool to add it to the resume, the first guy to do it,” he said. “I‘m happy to get my first individual gold.”
As the swimming competition has unfolded over the first week of the Games, Phelps has appeared a frustrated and, on occasion, a desolate figure, in particular when he lost the 200 meters butterfly gold by a touch to South African Chad le Clos.
On Thursday, the sense of relief was palpable. The smile rarely left his face as he appraised his career and confirmed he would retire from all competitive swimming after the Games.
Lochte, who said he believed his time had finally come after he trounced Phelps in the 400 meters individual medley on the opening day of the swimming competition, took defeat graciously and said he would miss his great rival.
He also made no mention of the fact that he had swum in the 200 meters backstroke final half an hour earlier, while Phelps’ other race of the session came after the medley final.
“He is the toughest racer I have ever had to deal with,” Lochte, the silver medalist said. “The rivalry we have created has been awesome for our sport. I‘m going to miss racing him.”
Third-placed Hungarian Laszlo Cseh joined in the tributes.
“It will not be the same,” he said. “He was the swimmer I always wanted to beat.”
A hint that Phelps, who has two more opportunities to add to his record 20 medals, might not be fully focused on his final Games came this year when he said London was “just about what size cherry I want to put on my sundae”.
Defeat to Lochte last Saturday strengthened the impression that the Games might become a valedictory final lap for the man who won a record eight gold medals four years ago in Beijing.
Since Beijing Lochte, frustrated with his status as a perennial runner-up, has dedicated himself to a punishing training program with a view to defeating Phelps in London.
Phelps responded to the challenge by increasing his workload and announcing he would drop one race from his Olympic schedule.
“We love racing each other,” he said prior to Thursday’s race. “Neither one of us likes to lose.”
Phelps’ life-long coach Bob Bowman said the rivalry with Lochte had produced “an incredible level of races”.
“They are two guys obviously very different so it is kind of nice to look at those personality differences,” he said.
Phelps’ last individual event will be the 100 meters butterfly final on Friday.
On Saturday he will swim in the medley relay, the final event on the program and one which the Americans have never lost when they have attended the Games.
Phelps said he had not thought too much about life after retirement, apart from playing gold with his friend and U.S. Masters champion Bubba Watson.
“I guess once it’s all over, it’s going to really hit me emotionally,” he said.
“I let myself shed a few tears out there tonight.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury