In the annals of Olympic history, Michael Phelps will likely be regarded as not only the best swimmer but the best overall athlete to compete. He recently earned his 21st gold medal at the Summer Games in Rio by winning the 4X200 freestyle relay. It was Phelps’ victory in the 200-meter butterfly for gold medal 20, however, that has set the Internet abuzz and given rise to the term “Phelps Face.”
In 2012, Phelps lost his signature event to South African Chad Le Clos by just five-hundredths of a second. While the defeat was a demoralizing one for Phelps, it was the actions of Le Clos afterward and in the interim before the games in Rio that perhaps annoyed Phelps the most.
Last year Phelps made a strong showing at the U.S. Nationals in Texas, but his achievements were somewhat dismissed by Le Clos. In an interview with the Associated Press, Le Clos indicated that he was glad Phelps was in top form so that he could not make excuses for a defeat in Rio, a defeat that Le Clos all but predicted by referring to their impending clash as a swimming version of Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.
Le Clos also suggested that Phelps benefited from the presence of inferior competition, stating that it would be a different scenario if he were the one in the pool with Phelps. In the 200-meter butterfly this year in Rio, Le Clos swam in a lane right next to Phelps but only managed to finish fourth.
The trash-talking done by Le Clos was even seconded by the South African’s father who claimed that times were irrelevant and that Le Clos would still be victorious in Rio. All of the tension between the two swimmers boiled over on Monday night Rio as they waited in the staging area for the 200-meter butterfly semi-finals to begin. Le Clos was seen by television cameras shadowboxing as Phelps bored into him with a stare that quickly went viral. Le Clos continued the stare-down at the starting blocks in an apparent effort to intimidate Phelps, but the American legend refused to look at him.
It was only after Phelps secured the victory and his 20th gold medal in the finals that he addressed Le Clos and the shade he’d been throwing for four years. Phelps called his win a type of revenge and acknowledged that the buildup to the race carried a lot of emotion. With a finger wag and raising of his arms that was loudly cheered in Rio, Phelps put an end to the discussions of who was the superior athlete.