RIO DE JANEIRO • It was expected to be stressful, because he is no longer technically in what would rank as the best racing form of his life.
He would have had no problems years ago, when his body would respond on command. Throttle back, and there would be no problem. The gas was always there.
How, then, did Michael Phelps end up winning an Olympic final as a 31-year-old?
He is a greybeard in swimming terms, someone who could gather people round and tell stories of how things once were.
Yet, he touched the wall and won the 200m individual medley on Thursday at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio.
And, when he did, the result of a race that might have been considered in question only two minutes earlier was instead etched on the granite tablet where all of the American's accomplishments seem to be recorded.
It's crazy to think about but it's also really cool because I've been able to do everything that I ever wanted.
MICHAEL PHELPS, after winning his fourth straight 200m individual medley gold.
He became one of only three athletes - along with Al Oerter in the discus (1956-68) and Carl Lewis in the long jump (1984-96) - to have won titles in the same individual event at four straight Games.
"That hurt a lot," he said, after winning in 1min 54.66sec.
But, during the competition, that was impossible to tell. The next finisher, Japan's Kosuke Hagino, touched 1.95 seconds after Phelps.
In the course of your day, that is a sip of coffee. In swimming, it is a long, lazy summer afternoon.
Phelps could have knitted a sweater or FaceTimed his infant son.
Either way, he had a shockingly easy gold - as China's Wang Shun took the bronze in 1:57.05.
"I thought they would all go out fast, and then somebody would hold on," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' lifelong coach.
"But I thought more than one person would hold on."
Phelps has now made a career of holding on, and more.
And, because the numbers are an essential part of who he is and what he is doing in Rio, here is his tally after his Thursday exploits - four golds in Rio, 22 golds in his career, 26 Olympic medals overall.
The gap between that total and the next closest Olympian in history is something like the gap between Phelps and the field on Thursday, because Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, whom Phelps blew past in London four years ago, has 18 Olympic medals.
"I mean, it's Michael," said American Ryan Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medallist who could finish only fifth.
"Nothing surprises me any more with that guy."
"It's been a hell of a career," said Phelps, who could still equal his Athens 2004 tally of six gold medals, two shy of his epic Beijing 2008 haul. "It's crazy to think about but it's also really cool because I've been able to do everything that I ever wanted."
Phelps' day, however, did not end on a happy note as he was dragged into a doping criticism row by Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who has twice been caught for banned substances.
Soon after finishing second in the women's 200m breaststroke, Efimova responded to comments from the US' Lilly King and Britain's Chloe Tutton that she should not be competing at these Games by saying that her situation is no different than that of Phelps, who was photographed in 2009 holding a marijuana pipe.
"What would (King) say about Michael Phelps?" asked the Russian at a press conference.
"I myself am, of course, against doping. I never used it on purpose but I know there have been very many occasions where people do it because they don't know or because they're stupid or naive.
"There always should be another chance… when you are driving your car and you break down you get a ticket, you don't lose your licence for life or get put in jail."
Doping was a perpetual topic on Thursday. Just before the swim programme began, the Brazilian newspaper Estadao reported that Chinese swimmer Chen Xinyi had tested positive for doping.
It said the 18-year-old failed a test for the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide before the Rio Olympics and has applied to the International Olympic Committee for a hearing to look into the matter.
WASHINGTON POST, THE GUARDIAN