Michael Phelps was a changed man, we were told. He was finally at peace with himself, having overcome personal problems and put to rest years of turmoil within. He had emerged sober from rehab, having battled alcohol trouble. He was a father, and no more the raging youth of old. He had rediscovered his love for swimming, having, by his account, laboured through the 2012 Olympics. He was a leader now; a mentor; the calm, wise head on the U.S. swim team handed the honour of carrying the American flag at the Opening Ceremony. Maybe so.
“There wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight,” he said later. “I didn’t know I only won by 0.04 until the awards ceremony, but just seeing the number one next to my name just one more time in the 200m fly, I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Phelps leaves Rio de Janeiro with 23 Olympic gold medals, having claimed five of them at these Games. He showed a lot more emotion this time than ever before, but the competitive fire he demonstrated still burned brightly.
“Getting off the bus and walking to the pool tonight, I pretty much felt myself starting to crack,” Phelps said after his final race, the 4x100m medley relay. “Last warm-up, last time putting on a suit, last time walking out in front of people, representing my country... it’s insane.” Celebrating with his team-mates on the deck after Nathan Adrian had touched the wall first, Phelps said, “When everything started to hit harder, knowing that was the last time I’ll wear the Stars and Stripes in a race.”
As far as swansongs go, this will be difficult to top. “This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming and try to do something nobody has ever done,” said Phelps. “It turned out pretty cool. I’ve lived a dream come true. Being able to cap it off with these Games is just the perfect way to finish.”
It is difficult to disagree with any of that. Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time.
His impact on swimming — and indeed the Olympic Games — has been phenomenal. Earlier this year, USA Swimming Chief Marketing Officer Matt Farrell told Fox News that the organisation had seen a 7% increase in its membership after the 2004 Olympics, an 11% rise after the 2008 Games, and a 13% spike after 2012. There have been other successful American swimmers but none with a greater appeal than Phelps.
A generation of swimmers that grew up inspired by Phelps’ deeds was in Rio, swimming with and — as it turned out in Joseph Schooling’s case — beating him. That image of the Singaporean posing with Phelps 10 years ago as a school kid has now gone viral; so too the picture of Katie Ledecky getting an autograph. “We’ve all seen the photo of Katie and I when she was nine, and the photo of Joe and I,” Phelps said after losing in the 100m butterfly to Schooling. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming. That’s what I wanted to do. With the people in the sport now, I think you’re seeing it.”
Phelps made his Olympics debut as a 15-year-old in Sydney, finishing fifth in the 200m butterfly.
By the time Athens came around, he was a force in the sport, winning six gold medals. Four years later, he left Beijing a great swimmer, targeting — and securing — eight golds, beating Mark Spitz’s record of seven victories at a single Games. Seven of those eight wins came in World record times; his effort in the 100m fly was an Olympic record.
In London, Phelps may have slipped slightly from those stratospheric standards, but he still finished with four golds — surpassing Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time in the process — and two silvers.
“For Sydney, I just wanted to make the team. For Athens, I wanted to win gold for my country. For Beijing, I wanted to do something nobody else had done. In London, I wanted to make history. And now, I want to walk in the Opening Ceremony, take it all in, represent America in the best possible way and make my family proud. This time around, it’s about so much more than medals,” Phelps told the official Team USA website ahead of the 2016 Games. He could not have put it any better.
The comeback, after having announced his retirement post 2012, makes Phelps greater. “I kind of knew when I started coming back that it wasn’t going to be an easy process,” he said after winning the 200m IM. “I knew that I was going to have to force myself to go through pain that I didn’t want to go through. But if I wanted the end result, I had to do it.”
He had come back because he had not prepared for or left London the way he wanted. “I was always looking for shortcuts,” he said. “Oh, maybe I can skip a week here or skip a week there. Or, no, I don’t need to do that butterfly.”
This time, he would not allow himself any regrets. “The biggest thing for me, through the meet so far is that I’ve been able to kind of finish how I wanted to. You know? I’ve been able to come back and I’ve been able to accomplish things I’ve dreamt of. I felt like a kid again, and that’s the difference. I felt like I was 18.”
Phelps is 31 now, and there inevitably have been questions of a return to competitive action at the 2020 Games, but he has been swift to banish any such ideas, noting that he has achieved the perfect ending.
“I think he’s in such a good place personally that he doesn’t need it,” his coach Bob Bowman said.
Phelps added, though, that the world of swimming hadn’t seen the last of him. And that’s an encouraging thought. “I am retiring, but I’m not done-done with swimming,” he stated. “This is just the start of something new.”
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