LONDON - Michael Phelps has the wingspan of a pterodactyl. When he reaches out with the expanse of his arms, pushing water rhythmically in the butterfly, it is as if he were born to his favorite stroke.
Phelps was seventh, next to last, at the turn Friday night in the 100-meter butterfly. Could the last individual Olympic race of his career really end like this? And then, on the last lap, he did what he'd done so many times before: Turned on a gear no one else has as he powered to the only finish that could satisfy the tall-tale nature of his legend.
He struck gold, for a 17th time.
"I'm just happy that the last one was a win," Phelps said. "That's all I really wanted coming into the night. ... So we can smile and be happy."
He was smiling and happy as he said it, the theme of his last Olympic meet. He is everybody's best friend here, exchanging jokes with Ryan Lochte, high-fives with Katie Ledecky and kind words with Chad le Clos.
The South African racer will go down as the last man to beat Phelps, in the 200 butterfly. Phelps returned the favor Friday in the 100 fly. And when they emerged from the pool, they shared some words, one racer to another, as they walked dripping on the deck.
Le Clos, 20, told Phelps that he is his hero. And Phelps, 27, told le Clos that he was looking for great things from his career, as le Clos recalled the conversation later.
They appeared together at the medalists' news conference. "Chad, he's a kid," Phelps said, clasping him on the shoulder as he told how they razz one another about who'd beat the other in video games.
"He said he could take me, so it's that competitive side, it doesn't matter what it's in," said Phelps, who knows about competitive sides.
Phelps finished in 51.21 to le Clos' 51.44. That's a comfortable cushion. Consider this: Phelps won the 100 fly by four-hundredths of a second in Athens - and by one-hundredth in Beijing.
Tonight is Phelps' last Olympic moment. He'll swim the butterfly leg of the 4 x 100 medley relay, a race that the USA traditionally owns. He said how some of the guys on the team wanted a big showing from him. "I ain't going 49.7," he said he told them. "Sorry to bust your bubble, but I'm not going that fast."
This sort of self deprecation didn't used to be part of Phelps style. The pressure of perfection in Beijing, when he won eight gold medals in eight events, is four years in his rear view mirror. This time, the last dance is all about fun - and history.
He won the 100 fly for a third consecutive Olympics. No man had won the same individual swimming event for three consecutive Games since the night before, when Phelps did it in the 200 individual medley. Before that, no man had ever done it at all.
Add all of that history to this: Phelps is now up to 21 medals, three more than anyone else has ever won, with a shining chance for one more.
"I think once I'm done, and once tomorrow is over, I think there is going to be a lot more emotion that really comes out," Phelps said.
As the national anthem played in the medal ceremony, the cameras zeroed in on Phelps. His eyes, you could see, were full.
"To be honest, I thought it would hit me harder than it is right now," Phelps said. "I don't really, I don't know, I guess a lot of those emotions haven't really come through my brain over the last week."
His haul for his last week: Three gold medals, two silver and one out-of-the-money fourth that came on the opening night of the Olympic meet. If the relay goes gold tonight, he'll finish his Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 of them gold.
"What he's done is incredible," Missy Franklin said. "It's helped people kind of re-think the impossible."
Franklin is 17. They're calling her the female Phelps. She won gold in the 200 backstroke in Friday night's first race. Phelps won his gold in the second. Ledecky's race, the 800 free, was next. She won gold, too, in an upset.
"I would say that's a pretty good first Olympics for a 15-year-old," Phelps said.
The last individual race of Phelps' career, and the first finals of Ledecky's, put them in the ready room at the same time. He offered her this advice.
Have fun out there.
By Erik Brady, USA TODAY