RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps is used to being in a league of his own.
So it was strange to see him, after what he insists was his final individual race as an Olympian, crowding onto a medal stand with two other swimmers.
And it wasn’t even the top step.
In a changing of the guard that left him totally at peace, Phelps was beaten Friday by a 21-year-old who grew up idolizing the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. Joseph Schooling of Singapore built a big lead in the 100-meter butterfly and easily held off one of Phelps’ patented comebacks, leaving him at 22 gold medals with one race, a relay, left to go.
And that will be his final event, Phelps insisted.
No more comebacks.
“I’m not going four more years and I’m standing by that,” he said. “I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever put my mind to in the sport and after 24 years in the sport, I’m happy with how things finished.”
While Phelps wasn’t all that persuasive when he first retired after the 2012 London Games — and, indeed, he began eyeing a return to swimming about a year later — the big hug for Schooling and the huge smile when it was done told a different story this time.
He’s a father now, to 3-month-old Boomer. He’ll soon be marrying his fiancee, Nicole Johnson.
He’s ready to move on, and this time he really seems to mean it.
“I’m happy,” Phelps said. “I’m ready to spend some time with Boomer and Nicole and watch the little dude grow.”
This being Phelps, he had to do something out of the ordinary, even in defeat.
He was part of the first three-way tie for silver in Olympic swimming history, joined on the next-highest step by longtime foes Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. They all touched in 51.14 seconds, which was actually faster than Phelps’ gold medal-winning time in 2012.
They clasped hands and stepped up together.
Then they all looked up to Schooling, receiving the gold for his blistering time of 50.39.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Schooling said. “I don’t know what to believe, like, whether I actually did it or I’m still preparing for my race.”
What made it even more special: Schooling still has a picture that he took with Phelps when the U.S. team trained in Singapore before the 2008 Olympics, the games where Phelps won a record eight gold medals in the pinnacle of his career.
“That’s pretty crazy, what happens in eight years,” said Schooling, who attends the University of Texas. “I’m just honored and privileged to have the chance to race alongside him.”
With four gold medals at these games and 22 for his career, Phelps has an opportunity to pick up one more before he leaves Rio. He’ll need some help from his teammates to do it — he leads off with the butterfly leg of the 400 medley relay on the final night of swimming Saturday.
While Phelps’ loss left the crowd in shock, Katie Ledecky got them on their feet again with another dominating performance, handily breaking the world record in the 800 freestyle.
And two other Americans won gold, too.
Anthony Ervin capped a remarkable personal journey with a gold in the 50 freestyle — 16 years after he won his first individual gold in the same event at the Sydney Games. And Maya DiRado knocked off the Iron Lady in the 200 backstroke, pulling off a furious rally on the final lap to beat Katinka Hosszu. Bronze went to Canada’s Hilary Caldwell.
Ledecky became the first woman since Debbie Meyer to sweep the three longer freestyle events at the same Olympics. Meyer took the 200, 400 and 800 at the 1968 Mexico Games, and Ledecky matched that performance with a couple of world records as well.
Ledecky was merely racing the clock as she powered away from the field to touch in 8 minutes, 4.79 seconds, eclipsing the mark of 8:06.68 that she set at a grand prix meet in Texas back in January.
Then, Ledecky played the waiting game, hanging on the rope for a while to let the rest of the field finish.
Jazz Carlin finally touched in 8:16.17 to claim the silver, just ahead of Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas grabbing the bronze in 8:16.37.
Some 23 seconds after Ledecky touched the wall, the last of the eight finalists chugged to the end of the grueling race.
Ledecky was barely breathing hard.
“I hit all my goals right on the nose this week,” she said.
Ledecky also became only the third American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics, following fellow swimmers Amy Van Dyken and Missy Franklin.
While Ledecky, at 19, is the youngest member of the U.S. team, Ervin is the oldest at 35.
In the blink of an eye, Ervin went from one end of the pool to the other in a furious dash, edging the defending Olympic champion, Florent Manaudou of France, by a mere hundredth of a second. Another American, Nathan Adrian, took the bronze.
Ervin won his first gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, tying teammate Gary Hall Jr. for the top spot. Then, Ervin walked away from swimming, skipping the next two Olympics while he embarked on a journey to find his purpose in life.
Turns out, it was swimming all along.
Ervin returned to make the American team in 2012, but failed to win a medal in London. Now, improbably, he’s back on the top of the podium again.
DiRado’s upset denied Hosszu a fourth gold in Rio, and capped off a remarkable one-and-done Olympics for the American.
She’s already got a job lined up in Atlanta after the Olympics and made it clear she would be retiring no matter the results. She certainly has nothing to complain about after winning two golds, a silver and a bronze.
“This whole day has been kind of crazy because it’s all of these little last things that I’ve gotten to do, like my last warmup with the girls at the training pool,” DiRado said. “I tried to keep it all under control, but there’s been a lot of tears these last 24 hours.”
Story: Paul Newberry