BEIJING | Leading from start to finish and establishing another world record, Michael Phelps moved within two steps of Olympic immortality by winning the 200 individual medley Thursday night EDT at the Water Cube.
A win in the 100 butterfly Friday night EDT or the 4x100 medley relay Saturday night would enable Phelps to match Mark Spitz’s 36-year old record for most gold medals in a single Olympics with seven. Victories in both would complete the greatest performance in games history.
Phelps broke his world record, set at the U.S. trials July 4, by 0.57 seconds, winning in 1:54.23. Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh was second, and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte was third less than 30 minutes after winning the 200 backstroke.
“I just wanted to step on it in the first 50 a little bit and try and get out to an early lead,” Phelps said. “I knew that was a hard double for Ryan, and I knew if I got a big enough lead, I thought I could hang on.”
The second-fastest qualifier behind Lochte, Phelps led by 0.36 seconds after the first 50 (butterfly) but saw the lead shrink to 0.05 during the backstretch part of the race. Then he put the race away during the breaststroke, extending the lead to 1.11 seconds.
“It’s a spectacle,” said Great Britain’s James Goddard, who finished sixth in the 200 IM. “This is a once in a lifetime thing we’re seeing.”
About 35 minutes later, Phelps won his semifinal in the 100 butterfly in 50.97, the second-fastest time overall.
“It’s going to be a really tough race tomorrow,” Phelps said. “If I’m not there after the first 50, it’s going to be really hard, so I’m going to force it the frist 50.”
Lochte and Rebecca Soni started the session with wins for the United States. Soni added gold in the 200 breaststroke to her silver in the 100 breaststroke, besting Australia’s Leisel Jones in a world-record time of 2:20.22. Jones won the 100 earlier in the meet.
Soni was second halfway through the race before pulling ahead during the third lap. The 21-year old from New Jersey was one of the U.S. surprises. Her only previous long-course international experience was the World University Games in 2005, and she went 0-for-3 the year after undergoing surgery to correct a rapid heartbeat.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” Soni said. “When I was in front, I didn’t realize I was beating Leisel. When I turned, I saw I was in front, and I knew I had a little bit left in me.”
Before swimming in the 200 IM, Lochte won his first individual gold by capturing the 200 backstroke in a surprising world record time (1:53.94), 0.61 seconds better than Aaron Peirsol, who was going for the backstroke sweep and to defend his win from Athens. Lochte’s previous two golds had come in the relays.
There have been 21 world records in the meet.
“That’s the theme - you’ve got to break a world record to win,” Peirsol said.
Natalie Coughlin was the fastest qualifier in the 100 freestyle final but fought to finish third behind Germany’s Britta Steffen and Australia’s Libby Trickett.
In the 50 freestyle semifinals, Ben Wildman-Tobriner barely advanced to the final, finishing tied for seventh and qualifying by 0.08 seconds. Garrett Weber-Gale was eliminated after timing 13th.
Elizabeth Beisel (second) and Margaret Hoelzer (fifth) advanced to the 200 backstroke finals.