A Venerable Michael Phelps Record Falls

GWANGJU, South Korea — Kristof Milak was 13 months old when Michael Phelps set his first world record, in the 200-meter butterfly. For most of the next 18 years in his native Hungary, Milak studied low-quality videotapes of Phelps’s races, squinting at the grainy images for tips on how to refine his butterfly technique.

The poor quality of the images precluded Milak from gleaning very much, he lamented. But that’s not how it looked to Phelps, who could not have been more impressed with Milak’s performance on Wednesday in the 200-meter butterfly final at the FINA World Championships.

In a race that Phelps watched online, Milak, 19, won in 1 minute 50.73 seconds, shattering the world record and becoming the first man not named Phelps to own it since 2001, a span of 18 years, 3 months and 24 days.

Milak’s split over the final 100 meters was 0.78 seconds faster than what Phelps managed when he lowered the record for the final time, to 1:51.51, at this meet in 2009.

“As frustrated as I am to see that record go down, I couldn’t be happier to see how he did it,” said Phelps, who won the event in three Olympics and lowered the world record seven times. “That kid’s last 100 was incredible. He put together a great 200 fly from start to finish.”

Milak, who set the world junior record of 1:53.79 in 2017, was second at the 100-meter mark, 0.33 seconds behind South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who upset Phelps to win the gold at the 2012 Olympics. Milak said he caught a glimpse of Le Clos, who was two lanes away, as he came off the second turn.

“But once I did my dolphin kicks, I started to focus solely on myself,” Milak said through an interpreter. “I didn’t think of anything else, just my rhythm that I practice in training.”

Breathing every stroke — same as Phelps — Milak distanced himself from the field with every long and powerful stroke. By the time Milak turned at the 150 mark, he was nearly half a second under the world record pace and well ahead of the field. Daiyo Seto of Japan finished second in 1:53.86. Le Clos took third in 1:54.15.

After Milak’s time flashed on the scoreboard, he ripped off his cap and googles in one motion, slapped the water and sat on a lane line with his arms outstretched as if to say, “Ta da.”

“I didn’t really expect to break the record,” he said, “but I was prepared for it.”

Milak trains in Budapest, where his teammates include Katinka Hosszu, who won four medals, including three golds, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He described Hosszu as the swimmer he most admires because of her work ethic. Milak’s hair was still wet from his record swim, but he already was looking ahead.

“It’s now going to be much harder to set a new personal best,” he said.

Phelps, in his third year of retirement, still owns the world records in the 100-meter butterfly and the 400-meter individual medley. He said he did not think the 200 butterfly mark would fall so quickly. He expected to relinquish his record in the 100 butterfly first because Milak was the only swimmer since the 2016 Olympics who had come within a second and a half of the mark.

“It happened because there was a kid who wanted to do it, who dreamed of doing it, who figured out what it would take to do it, who worked on his technique until it was beautiful and who put in the really, really hard work that it takes to do it,” Phelps said in a phone interview. “My hat’s off to him.”

Karen Crouse is a sports reporter who joined the Times in 2005. She started her newspaper career at the Savannah News-Press as the first woman in the sports department. Her first book, “Norwich,” was published in January, 2018.  @bykaren

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