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With 19th gold medal, Michael Phelps on course for Olympic sweep

Michael Phelps's very presence at the Summer Games is record-breaking, but the American swimmer just proved he's much more than a nominal contender.

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United States' Michael Phelps celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men's 4x100-meter final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Monday, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Martin Meissner/AP

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In an electrifying performance in Brazil Sunday night, Michael Phelps proved age, a lackluster year of competition, and a personal fall from grace weren’t enough to stop him from winning gold.

In his first appearance at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, the 31-year-old also showed he may be capable of winning six more gold medals to top off one of the greatest Olympic careers ever.

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"Michael usually works this way: When one thing is good, everything is pretty good," Bob Bowman, his longtime coach, told the Associated Press. "It doesn't usually work in parts. So I feel pretty good now."

In the finals of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay Sunday, Mr. Phelps swam the fastest split of his career. If he does win five more golds, he will not only cement the argument he is the greatest Olympian of all time. It will also add to his story of resilience, after he temporarily retired in 2012, and he was arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) in 2014, which he said prompted him to confront his personal demons and repair his relationship with his estranged father. Now, he appears unstoppable.

"As fast as my teammates were, the extraterrestrial that is Phelps was faster," said Fabien Gilot, the French swimmer who swam against Phelps in the second leg of the race. France won silver, while Australia took the bronze.

In the relay, Phelps turned in a time of 47.12 seconds, faster than all but three other swimmers in the field – all of them anchors on the medal-winning teams and specialists in the 100 freestyle. It was also faster than any of his relay splits at the last three Olympics. This includes the split he swam at the height of his career in Beijing in 2008, when he broke Mark Spitz's longstanding record of eight gold medals.

Phelps has five more opportunities to medal at this year’s Games. He returns to the pool Monday for the preliminaries of the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps is eager to reclaim this race, after he lost to South Africa’s Chad le Clos at the 2012 London Games, according to the Associated Press. Phelps will then compete in the 100 fly and 200 individual medley, as well as two more relays.

With 19 medals around his neck, Phelps is considered one of the greatest Olympians of all time, if not the greatest. Yet, he wasn’t expected to be here. Following the 2012 London Games, he announced his retirement, after which he admits his life took a turn for the worse. He was arrested for a DUI in September 2014, and admitted himself into an inpatient treatment center. It was there he took steps to repair his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, afterward he started a family with his fiancée, welcoming the birth of their son, Boomer. He also started to compete again. But questions surrounded his abilities.

Phelps showed a flash of dominance at a lower-level competition in San Antonio, Texas, last summer, which he swam in because he was banned from the world championships following a second DUI arrest. But Phelp’s performance at the Olympic trials last month was less than stellar. So the team was forced to weigh Phelps’s poor times against his competitive fire. Their choice paid off Sunday.

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At this year’s Games, Phelps has also defied age, at a time when swimmers and medalists are enjoying longer competitive careers. Phelps is the first male American swimmer to appear in five Games. 

Now, he hopes this momentum will work in his favor.

"I hope that's a good sign," Phelps said, after Sunday's race. "I guess we'll see over the next couple of days. But I'm very pleased with the start."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.