Denmark's Pernille Blume beat a field of world and Olympic champions to take gold in the women's 50m freestyle and Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri won the men's 1,500m freestyle after dominating almost from the start.
However, it was Phelps who stole the show yet again when he sprang from the block to swim the butterfly leg of the 4x100m medley relay, recapturing the lead from Great Britain and setting up yet another US victory, after Ryan Murphy had led off by breaking the world backstroke record.
“I walked to the pool tonight and I almost felt myself starting to cry,” said an uncharacteristically emotional Phelps. “The last warm-up, the last time putting on a suit, the last time walking out in front of thousands of people representing my country,” said the 31-year-old of his final swim in his fifth Olympics.
He ended his Rio 2016 programme with five golds and a silver, improving on his tally in London four years ago when he came away with four golds, where felt he had failed to do himself full justice, which prompted him to come back from retirement in 2014.
Now though he is categorical that he will not be making another comeback. “This is the way I wanted to finish my career,” he said.
Meanwhile, Phelps' long-time coach Bob Bowman said swimming was unlikely to see anyone of his sort again. “It's not even once in a generation; it's maybe once in 10 generations that a Michael Phelps comes along,” he reflected.
Backstroke sweep for Murphy
Phelps’ compatriot Ryan Murphy, who completed a personal sweep of the men’s backstroke golds with victory in the 100m and 200m events as well as the medley relay, made a bit of history of his own as he broke Aaron Peirsol's world record in the lead-off leg of the medley relay.
“To do it in one of the most watched races in the history of swimming, Michael's last race, is something I’m going to cherish forever,” Murphy said of the 51.85 seconds he swam to eclipse Peirsol's 51.94.
Great Britain took the relay silver, with 100m breaststroke champion Adam Peaty producing a storming second leg to haul his team up from sixth place to first, while Australia won the bronze.
1000th Olympic gold for USA
In the previous race, Simone Manuel anchored the US women's 4x100m medley team to the 1,000th gold medal in her country's Olympic history.
“It's really special and the fact that I can do it with a relay is amazing," she said after the U.S. women beat Australia and Denmark. Just sharing that with three other women is just icing on the top of the cake... It's a nice number.”
It was Manuel's second gold in the space of three days, adding to the 100m freestyle she claimed two days earlier.
Denmark end gold drought in the pool
Manuel had to accept second-best in the women’s 50m freestyle, behind Denmark's Blume won the race in 24.07 seconds, winning her country’s first swimming gold since 1948 by 0.02 seconds from Manuel. Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus was a further two-hundredths of a second behind in third. The London 2012 winner Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands finished back in sixth.
Paltinieri delivers for Italy in the 1,500m
Italy's Paltrinieri won the men’s 1,500m freestyle after dominating throughout the race with a relentless display of technique and endurance in the longest event in the pool. Connor Jaeger of the USA took the silver, and Paltinieri’s countryman Gabriele Detti increased Italy’s joy by taking bronze in a dramatic tussle at the finish with American Jordan Wilimovsky.
“It's incredible. Really. I have been dreaming of this moment since I was a child and it's amazing,” said the 21-year-old Paltinieri. “There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Italian people really wanted this gold and it was more difficult than I expected.”