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London - Michael Phelps won the right to call himself the greatest Olympian of all time when the US team destroyed the field in the 4x200m freestyle relay on Tuesday to hand him his 19th medal.
Chinese prodigy Ye Shiwen won her second gold of the Games, setting an Olympic record in the 200m individual medley, after stunning swimming pundits with her victory and world record in the 400m medley on Saturday.
But the night belonged to Phelps, who swam the anchor leg of a relay that the Americans dominated from start to finish after Ryan Lochte handed them a commanding lead.
It was a historic moment in the 116-year annals of the modern Olympic Games, and an emotional one for Phelps, still a powerful force but no longer the commanding figure who won an unprecedented eight golds at the Beijing Games in 2008.
Phelps, who came to London with 16 medals and picked up a silver in Sunday's 4x100m freestyle relay, drew level with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina's haul of 18 when he won silver in his first outing of Tuesday night, in the 200m butterfly.
The American led going into the last few metres of his favourite race, but was tiring rapidly and had to settle for second when South Africa's Chad Le Clos ploughed through to snatch it on the final touch.
Watching at poolside was Latynina, 77, who has held the record for decades with her haul - including nine golds - from the Games at Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964).
Latynina told Reuters earlier this month she had no doubt Phelps would overtake her in London, adding: “I can only wish him well”.
The entire audience in the 17 500-capacity Aquatics Centre stood to applaud Phelps' achievement in winning 15 gold medals, two silvers and two bronze. Latynina won nine, five and four respectively. - Reuters