Michael Phelps stands alone at the top

His 19 Olympic medals — and counting — might never be equaled

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It could have been a little more dramatic. Michael Phelps could have made us wait until the weekend to watch him win his historic 19th medal and become the most-decorated athlete in the modern history of the Olympic Games, but no matter.

Baltimore's own stands alone.

The only real suspense on Tuesday came when he was out-touched in the final of the 200 butterfly an hour before he would win gold in the 4x200 free relay, and even the brief disappointment of that silver medal pushed the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen one step closer to the top of, well, Mount Olympus.

When it came time to climb above the athletes in all the other Olympic sports, there was no doubt. Phelps hit the water in the relay with a solid lead — thanks to teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens — and turned the final 200 meters into his own personal victory parade. The only thing missing was the Cal Ripken lap around the Olympic Aquatics Centre.

There will be more medals. Phelps has three more events on his dance card, but they will just be icing, like the 501 games that Ripken added to his consecutive games streak after he broke Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record. Those three remaining medal opportunities will just make it more likely that Phelps' record medal total will stand the test of time.

There's no point in speculating upon whether the overall medals record will ever be broken, since there surely were those who felt the previous record — set by Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina during the 1950s and '60s — might stand forever, but it's fair to wonder if anyone will seriously challenge Phelps' total of 15 golds. No other athlete has won more than nine.

The swimming world will soon have to ponder a future without Phelps, but not quite yet. He burst into the international spotlight in Athens in 2004. He stole the show in Beijing and replaced Mark Spitz as America's most storied swimmer with a record eight gold medals in a single Olympiad. He is now assured of going out on top of the sport he has transformed, even if he isn't the dominant force of aquatic nature he was four years ago.

He certainly gave us all a scare in his first event of the London Games, failing to medal with a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 400 individual medley. It was the first time he had finished with less than a bronze medal in an Olympic event since 2000, but with six events still on his schedule and three solid relay teams built around him, his chances of coming away with at least three medals remained very strong.

The first came in the 400-meter freestyle relay on Sunday, but Phelps and his teammates had to settle for silver when Lochte was caught from behind in the anchor leg. Phelps would suffer a similar individual fate in the 200 butterfly final on Tuesday when he appeared to fall out of rhythm at the end and lost by a tiny fraction to South African Chad de Clos. He was so disgusted with his finish that he flung away his swim cap and buried his head in his hands, but obviously didn't allow himself much time to wallow in that disapointment.

Maybe the record would have been sweeter if he had tied it with an individual gold before breaking it with another in the relay. Maybe the rest of us have just been so spoiled by Phelps' genius in the pool that mere silver medals seem pedestrian.

However you want to look at it, when the time came to make history, Phelps did it exactly the way you would have expected, with the greatest swimmers in the world eating his wake and another gold medal hanging around his neck.

Of course, he was already the greatest swimmer in history and one of the great sons of Charm City. Nothing that happened in London was going to change that.

His legend could only grow.

And it did.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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