​Only a small number of people in the world know what it's like to win an Olympic gold medal.

Michael Phelps knows what it's like. 21 times. Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images.

We watch them win, when it all seems so effortless. We don't see the years of practice, dedication, bruised muscles, broken limbs, progress, setbacks, and triumphs that come before.


What is it like to experience that victory? To experience the rush of absolute certainty that you are — finally, unequivocally — the best in the world at what you do?

Some athletes report feeling "ecstatic." Others describe a sense of relief or disbelief. Some admit feeling lost or depressed after it's over. Others express gratitude for the doors that swung open for them after the win.  Still others describe a newfound responsibility to fans and their country.

None of that matters in the few seconds after they realize they are champions, as these 19 glorious, heart-stopping shots of athletes experiencing that exact moment from Rio show:

1. Eric Murray and Hamish Bond of New Zealand after winning the men's pair rowing final.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images.

2. Mireia Belmonte García of Spain earning her first gold after a nail-biting women's 200-meter butterfly.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images.

3. Ding Ning of China celebrating her women's singles table tennis victory.

Photo by Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images.

4. Kyle Chalmers of Australia after nailing the men's 100-meter freestyle.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images.

5. Áron Szilágyi of Hungary after pulling down gold in men's individual saber.

Photo by Laurent Kalfala/AFP/Getty Images.

6. Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan leaping out of the pool after his men's 200-meter breaststroke win.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

7. Jack Laugher and Chris Mears of Great Britain letting it out after their men's synchronized diving victory.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images.

8. Kōhei Uchimura of Japan after winning the men's gymnastics individual all-around.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

9. Joseph Clarke of Great Britain after dominating the kayak men's final.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

10. Mashu Baker of Japan after winning the final bout of the men's 90-kilogram judo event.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

11. Michael Phelps of the United States adding to his historic tally in the men's 200-meter butterfly.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

12. Sangyoung Park of South Korea crushing the men's epee individual competition.

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images.

13. The United States men's swimming team racking up another 4x200 freestyle relay win.

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.

14. Katie Ledecky of the United States after edging out her competitors in the women's 200-meter freestyle.

Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images.

15. Rafaela Silva of Brazil falling to her knees after slaying the women's 57-kilogram judo final.

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

16. Katinka Hosszú of Hungary going wild after her glorious women's 200-meter individual medley win.

Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images.

17. Yana Egorian of Russia savoring her epic, come-from-behind victory in women's individual saber.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

18. Yang Sun of China realizing he'll be taking home gold in the men's 200-meter freestyle.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

19. Simone Biles and Aly Raisman of the United States embracing after leading the women's gymnastics team to a victory in the team final.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

Congratulations to the champions. The hard work paid off, and the hard part is done.

Here's to many more victories — large and small — ahead.

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