If Michael Phelps had been able to write the script here Tuesday night, of course he would have won his signature event, the 200-meter butterfly. Didn't happen. He got caught between strokes at the very end, and he took silver. What a way to win his 18th career Olympic medal, tying him with Russian gymnast Larysa Latinina, who won her medals in the 1950s and 1960s.
An hour or so later, when the U.S. 4x200 relay team won, with Phelps swimming the anchor leg, he suddenly had 19, most ever.
And after four finals here at the 2012 London Games, Michael Phelps finally had his first gold medal of these Olympics.
To be clear: it's not that Michael Phelps is done, or over the hill, or washed up, or anything of the sort.
That's what that 4 x 200 relay proved -- as if it ever needed proving.
He swam that anchor with the power, speed and athletic grace that has been showcased since he first debuted on the Olympic stage, long ago in Sydney in 2000; with the take-on-all-comers fearlessness on display in Athens in 2004; you saw, too, echoes of the historic eight-for-eight audacity and bravado of Beijing in 2008.
All of that in a 1:44.05 anchor-leg split -- fastest on the U.S. team -- that drove the Americans to a 6:59.7 victory.
To swim the 4x2 relay under seven minutes is extraordinary. The others on the relay: Ryan Lochte, who swimming lead-off gave the Americans open water; Conor Dwyer; and Ricky Berens. The victory made Phelps and Lochte the first in Olympic history to win the 4x2 relay three times.
At the finish, you could see Debbie Phelps, who had been urging her son along the entire way, shout out from the stands, "Yes!"
That one word encapsulated it all -- all the years, and all the moments in all those years, that led up to the 19 medals. It's why there were visible emotions on the medal stand and why her son, and Lochte, Dwyer and Berens seemed to take an awfully long time coming off the deck after the medals ceremony. Why hurry?
"The biggest thing I've always said is -- anything is possible," Michael Phelps said late Tuesday night. "I've put my mind on doing something nobody has ever done before and there is nothing that was going to stand in my way -- of being the first Michael Phelps."
As for the 200 fly, the Phelps family signature race, a race that Michael had not lost at a major international competition since the 2002 Pan Pacific championships in Japan, winning the worlds in 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2011, along with Pan Pacific titles in 2006 and 2010 and Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008 -- he had the 2012 Olympic fly all but won.
He was ahead the entire race.
"I wanted this for Michael," Ian Thorpe, the great Australian swimmer, was saying on the BBC. "He looked like he had got it won."
But history, and life, work in mysterious ways. Here Michael Phelps showed himself not to be the automaton so many absurdly believe him to be. Instead, he revealed himself to be just like all of the rest of us -- imperfect.
Four years ago in Beijing, Phelps intuitively knew to take a half-stroke at the end of the 100 fly. That got him the win over Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of a second.
This time, again caught between strokes, he opted to glide to the wall.
While Phelps was drifting -- as it were -- toward the finish, Chad le Clos of South Africa was a human rocket in the water. He passed Phelps, out-touched him, by five-hundredths of a second.
After hitting the wall, both men looked at the clock. Phelps immediately realized his error. He flipped away one of the caps he swims in away in apparent disgust when he saw the "2" next to his his name.
But that was it, and this is one of Phelps' strengths. He acknowledges his imperfections, and moves on. "I'm not going to sit here and make excuses," he said later.
Le Clos, saying he had been inspired watching Phelps race in Athens in 2004, said of winning, It's like a dream come true," adding, "I have watched all his races a million times. Now I can watch my own."
As they were walking off the deck together after the 200 fly medal ceremony, Phelps and le Clos found themselves together in front of thousands of people. "I was a little bit dreaming at that stage," le Clos said. "He did say, obviously, 'Congratulations, and live the moment, and enjoy it,' " and if anyone would know, it's Michael Phelps.
"It's really special. It really was special."