Michael Phelps became the most successful Olympian of all time to cap a stunning opening few days of action in the pool at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The American won a record 19th Olympic medal as he helped the US team to gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
“I just started to smile with 25 metres to go,” Phelps said. “It was a cool feeling.”
It was a 15th Olympic gold medal for the 27-year-old, leading to ‘Phelps’ being one of the world’s top-five most popular search items on Twitter worldwide.
As Phelps became the most-decorated athlete in Olympic history, primetime coverage on US network NBC registered an audience of 38.7 million – the best United States viewing figures for any night of the Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games in the US – securing outstanding exposure for swimming and aquatics in the world’s biggest sports market.
Phelps’ exploits were seen by millions worldwide, including US President Barack Obama, who sent a message to Phelps on Twitter that stated: “Congrats to Michael Phelps for breaking the all-time Olympic medal record. You've made your country proud.”
The globalisation of aquatics has been demonstrated by the medals tally so far at London 2012, which has provided the perfect platform for aquatics to the widest possible audience.
By Thursday, with several days of competition left in the only two aquatic sports – swimming and diving – to have presented medals to that point, 16 countries had been represented on the podium.
By the close of the sixth day of competition at the Games, there had been aquatics medal-winners from Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Oceania, demonstrating the worldwide appeal of such sporting disciplines.
More countries will be hopeful of securing medals in the other sports that are governed by the International Aquatics Federation (FINA) and are yet to present medals – Water Polo, Synchronised Swimming and Open Water Swimming.
One of the most significant successes came on Monday when 15-year-old schoolgirl Ruta Meilutyte claimed Lithuania's first ever swimming medal and became one of the youngest women to win an Olympic title by winning gold in the 100 metres breaststroke final.
Meilutyte's victory sparked an outpouring of national pride in Lithuania, a Baltic country that is home to three million people and is still recovering from one of Europe’s deepest recessions.
“Thank you, Ruta, for allowing us to be proud to be Lithuanians, to allow us to forget all crisis and other hardships,” the television channel showing the Games in Meilutyte's home country declared following her victory, which was watched in person at the Aquatics Centre by Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaite.
With several days of competition left, aquatic sports have already enjoyed a golden start to the London 2012 Olympics