Michael Phelps, who has been called the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time, swum into history this morning, winning an incredible title along with his nineteenth medal: The most decorated Olympian in history.
Phelps swam the last leg of the 4X200m freestyle relay to help the American men win on Tuesday, earning his fifteenth career gold medal, and his first of the London Games.
“I started smiling with about 20 meters to go,” Phelps said after the win, via Nicole Auerback of USA Today. “That’s the first time I’ve ever done that.”
The win put Phelps over the previous record for career medals set by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, and came just an hour after he suffered a shocking, last-second defeat (by “defeat,” we mean a silver medal) in the 200m butterfly to South Africa’s Chad le Clos. A win would have made him the first male to earn a gold medal in the same event at three Olympics in a row.
His 19-medal record is just the latest accolade the 27-year-old can add to his collection.
In 2000, at age 15, he qualified for his first Olympic team, making him the youngest male Olympian to qualify since 1932.
Phelps rose to stardom when he competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics, where he won eight medals, including six golds, matching the record for the most medals won in a single Olympics.
Then, in 2008, he won a historic eight gold medals — and set seven world records.
And this year, in 2012, he was the first US male swimmer to qualify for a fourth Olympic team.
Phelps has said these will be his last Olympics. Now, even after a few initial stumbles — at least by his extremely high standards — these 2012 Games have already been a success for America’s most celebrated, and now the world’s most decorated, Olympian.