Photo: Phelps gestures to indicate the four gold medals he has won at this Olympic games as he poses with his gold medal. Credit: REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler Michael Phelps reached the Olympus of sport legend on Thursday as he captured his 13th individual gold medal, demolishing his rivals in the 200-meter individual medley.
Phelps, now the greatest-ever Olympian, broke the tie with Leonidas of Rhodes, history's most famous sprinter and middle-distance runner, whose record stood for 2,168 years.
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Leonidas "maintained his speed at its prime for four Olympiads, and won 12 victories for running," second century A.D. Greek writer Pausanias wrote.
Indeed, in the Olympic Games of 164, 160, 156 B.C., Leonidas captured the wreath in three events. He won the stadion and the diaulos, roughly equivalent to today's 200-meter and 400-meter sprint races, respectively, and the hoplitodromos. That was a diaulos performed while wearing a bronze armor and carrying a shield.
In 152 B.C., a 36-year-old Leonidas won again his "triple," finishing his career with 12 Olympic crowns.
Phelps, by contrast, won the 100-meter butterfly in 2004, 2008 and 2012; the 200-meter butterfly in 2004, 2008 and 2016; the 200-meter medley in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016; the 400-meter medley in 2004 and 2008; and the 200-meter freestyle in 2008.
So far he's collected 22 gold medals, as well as two silver and two bronze. Nine of his wins have come as part of a relay team, which did not exist in the ancient Olympic Games.
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"That's a lot of medals, it's just insane. It's mind-blowing," Phelps said.
The 31-year-old American collected a number of other records in Rio. He is the oldest individual champion in Olympic swimming history, and the first swimmer to win individual gold medals 12 years apart.
By winning the fourth consecutive gold in the 200 individual medley, Phelps also equaled the record of American athletes Al Oerter and Carl Lewis.
Discus thrower Al Oerter, who died in 2007 at the age of 71, won four consecutive gold medals from 1956-68. His feat was matched by American Carl Lewis, who won four golds in long jump in 1984-1996.
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Oerter, however, has a plus.
"He won each gold with an Olympic record and a personal best," Olympic historian Bill Mallon told Reuters.
If Phelps were a country, he would be 39th on all-time Olympics gold medal table, one medal ahead of Ethiopia and one behind South Africa and Brazil.
He has two more opportunities -- in the 100-meter butterfly and 4x100-meter medley relay -- to add to his medal collection.
But are Phelps' feats comparable to those of Leonidas?
The American champion benefited from being more easily able to pile up medals in several events. And he didn't have to wear bronze armor weighing more than 44 pounds.
Leonidas made his exploits by placing his bare feet in grooved marble starting blocks -- a far cry from today's high-tech sport standards.
"Overall, I do think that the two athletes are favorably comparable," David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona and a specialist in the Ancient Olympic Games, told Discovery News.
"Phelps had to swim in many preliminary heats in order to qualify for the final events, something that was probably unlikely in some of the ancient events of Leonidas," Romano said.
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It's possible Leonidas made record race times, but this is something we'll never know.
"The Greeks did not time the athletes," Romano said.
He noted that both Leonidas and Phelps won over a 12-year period of time -- that's four Olympiads, from 2004 to 2016 for Phelps and four for Leonidas, from 164 to 152 B.C.
Leonidas, however was five years older than Phelps when he won his last Olympic wreath.
Phelps swims in the 100-meter individual butterfly tonight, in what will be the last individual race of his career. Most likely he'll further distance himself from Leonidas by winning his 14th individual gold medal.
The end of his extraordinary Olympic career will come on Saturday night, as he swims the butterfly leg of the 4X100 medley relay.
"I only have to put a racing suit on two more times after tonight," Phelps said.
"It's all stopping, competition wise, in the next 48 hours," he said.
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