LONDON – Even Michael Phelps seemed to see the night for what it was: a goodbye party for him and a hello to a new generation. It was a rare night when Phelps swam, dominated and even made a little history yet was not the biggest story line. He might not have even been the second-biggest story line, for that matter.
Two teenage girls stole that distinction.
More impressive than Phelps' victory in the 100-meter butterfly in 51.21 seconds over South African Chad le Clos and Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin, who tied for second in 51.44?
How about the domination of Missy Franklin, 17, in the 200-meter backstroke, an event in which she broke the world record and beat the second-place finisher by nearly two seconds?
Or the gold-medal performance by Katie Ledecky, who in her first major international event led the 800-meter freestyle from start to finish and came within a second of breaking the 4-year-old world record in the event?
"The sport is going to be fun to watch," said Phelps, who today will compete in his final event, the 4x100 medley relay. "I'm excited to see it from the outside more than anything, what these young people are going to do to continue to change the sport."
Franklin beamed after touching the wall in 2 minutes, 4.06 seconds, easily sliding under the previous world best of Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, 2:04.81, set in Rome in 2009. Franklin topped Russian Anastasia Zueva (2:05.92) and U.S. teammate Elizabeth Beisel (2:06.55).
"It feels amazing," Franklin said. "It's my favorite event. I can't think of a better way to end. I am the happiest girl alive."
Franklin, who has won three gold medals and one bronze in her first Olympics, has one more chance for a medal in tonight's 4x100 medley relay.
"I just wanted to go out and do my best and get a best time," she said. "My best time just happened to be a world record."
Ho-hum, sometimes that happens.
Franklin seems like a veteran compared to Ledecky, 15, whose competition here began in Thursday's preliminary round and ended when she touched the wall in 8:14.63, breaking the American record held by distance legend Janet Evans.
Ledecky beat Spain's Mireia Garcia Belmonte, who finished in 8:18.76, and Britain's Rebecca Adlington, the reigning Olympic champion who came home in 8:20.32. Adlington was supported by a roaring, flag-waving crowd.
"I was a lot more calm than I was for the preliminary swim," Ledecky said. "I just used the crowd. I put all that energy into the race."
A year ago, the biggest meet of Ledecky's summer was the U.S. junior national championships, in which she won three gold medals.
Friday, the stage was a little bigger.
Said Donna de Varona, who won two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics and watched from the stands: "I haven't seen a better women's team since I can't even tell you when. That says a lot."
It was a great night all around for the United States. To top it off, Cullen Jones grabbed the silver in the 50 freestyle, finishing in 21.54 as Frenchman Florent Manaudou got first in 21.34. American Anthony Ervin, who won the gold medal in the event at the 2000 Summer Games, got fifth in 21.78.
Phelps seemed to put much of his energy into enjoying the moment. As he did Thursday in winning the 200 individual medley, he produced an Olympic three-peat, capturing his third consecutive Olympic title with his victory.
And he did it without the drama of the 2008 Games, when he came from behind and slipped his hand on the wall at the last moment, beating Serbian Milorad Cavic by just .01 seconds. In Friday's race, Cavic got fourth in 51.81.
"I cannot believe Phelps," Cavic said. "I'm a one-trick pony, and he's the king."
Phelps now has a record 21 career Olympic medals – 17 of them gold.
"I don't even want to complain about going slower, or having a bad touch or finish," he said. "I'm not even going to say any of that. I'm just happy the last one was a win. This one was a bigger margin than the last two combined."
Phelps said Friday he still couldn't quite get his head around this finale.
"I thought it would hit me a lot harder than what it is right now," he said. "A lot of those emotions really haven't come through my brain this meet. I think I'm just kind of in meet mode."
For USA Swimming – past, present and most certainly future – it has been a meet to remember.