In passing the torch, Phelps caps career as most decorated Olympian
LONDON -- The first day of the rest of his life was supposed to dawn sunny with showers, according to the Met office that issues forecasts for the United Kingdom. Sunday's weather was to be similar to Saturday's. And Friday's, for that matter. This is the forecast for every day of English summer, changeable and yet the same, the odd intersection of life where Michael Phelps finds himself today.
Like the weather, everyone is talking about Phelps. Allison Schmitt, anchor of the USA women's gold-medal medley relay team, calls him "the most famous man in the world." Actually Phelps probably was not the most famous man in this East London post code Saturday -- one venue over in expansive Olympic Park, Usain Bolt had been preening and prancing through his early 100-meter heat -- but she could make the argument.
The most renowned swimmer in history clambered out of the Aquatics Center pool at 8:40 p.m. British Standard Time, having negotiated a butterfly leg in the medley relay in 50.73, taking a deficit of .21 seconds and turning it into a .26 lead for anchor Nathan Adrian. Phelps watched the freestyler storm to an almost two-second victory, raising his arms in the final seconds. Then other relay swimmers started coming to the backside of the starting blocks to shake Phelps' hands as if they were in a receiving line at a wedding reception. Or at a wake. Phelps, of course, never looked more alive, or dominant. He later would stand on the top step of the podium -- in his nonpareil career hasn't Phelps always stepped up? -- and receive his 22nd Olympic medal, the 18th gold. FINA president Julio Maglione also presented Phelps with a silver trophy, marking the career of the most decorated Olympian in history.
"Kinda weird looking at this and seeing the greatest Olympian of all time," Phelps said later in the venue press conference room, fingering the trophy in front of him. "I've looked up to Michael Jordan all my life because he's done something that nobody else has ever done and he was the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. I said to [coach Bob Bowman] in the warm down pool, 'You know what, I've been able to become the best swimmer of all time, and we did this together.' When I got out of the pool, he said, 'That's not fair.'
"'What's not fair about that?'
"You were in the pool.'
"Yeah, my tears could hide behind my goggles," Phelps said. "Yours were streaming down your face.' "
Phelps laughed as he recounted his story.
A butterflyer -- at least he was in the final swim of his career -- was free.
"I told myself I never wanted to swim when I'm 30," Phelps said. "That would be in three years. I don't want to swim another three years. I've been able to do everything I've wanted. I've been able to put my mind to the goals I've wanted to achieve and Bob and I have somehow managed to do every single thing. And I think if you can say that about your career, there's no need to move forward. Time for other things."
When the other American relay swimmers were asked if they believed Phelps truly was finished, Phelps, who at that point was on his way to the exit for another press conference at the Main Press Center, turned and said over his shoulder, "I'm done."
The question for a still dominant swimmer who won four golds and two silvers in London 2012: Is it really a cross-your-heart-hope-and-hope-to-die answer?
And if it is -- and if Phelps isn't just going on hiatus before Rio 2016 -- it begs this question: Will Phelps miss swimming more than swimming misses Phelps?
This is a core issue for Olympians, many of whom have been public personages before they have been allowed to be fully formed persons. In swimming, Phelps, at 27, is a relatively old man even if he remains at the peak of the profession he will abandon. In real life, at 27, he is just getting started.
So what happens when you know that single greatest moment of your life likely is in the rearview mirror before the age of 30? Outside the confines of a swimming lane, Phelps is a jut-jawed dude with an engaging Napoleon Dynamite smile. Inside that lane, he is celestial. In retirement, maybe he can turn himself into a cottage industry but he has to hang up the halo.
Since sweeping eight gold medals in Beijing, his practiced answer to any question about his legacy has been an anodyne "being the first Michael Phelps." Today he chooses to be the second Michael Phelps, unfettered, free from the grinding discipline that has defined him, with some noteworthy exceptions, since Athens 2004. Even the greatest athletes can drown in the maelstrom of life. Ian Thorpe, who is doing Olympic commentary for the BBC, still heard the sirens calling six years after his 2006 retirement and made a futile attempt to qualify for the Australian swim team in London. Funny, for years you thought you were getting in the water and all along it was the water getting into you. The thing is that water, when it is displaced, always rushes back. A void in a life is more difficult to fill.
"I think it hasn't hit him that he's done," said Brendan Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg on the medley relay, a race that the U.S. never has lost in the Olympics. "We keep telling him, but I don't think it will be until [Sunday] when he doesn't have to meet Bob in a pool somewhere to do a practice. "
The sport will be able to make a post-Phelps transition because sports always do. Swimming will keep churning them out, boys and girls who want to be like the aquatic Mike in Rio 2016 and beyond. Missy Franklin. Chad Le Clos. Ye Shiwen. Katie Ledecky. Ruta Meilutyte. Phelps might not yet fully grasp all the implications of retirement beyond the instant gratification of not being able to eat -- at least not his 10,000-calorie breakfasts and pasta for most every other meal -- but he intuitively understands that a swimmer can stop the clock but he can't stop time.
After winning his final individual race Friday, coming back from seventh at the wall to win the 100-meter butterfly by something more than fingernails as he had in 2004 and 2008, Phelps said, "I'm excited to see it from the outside more than anything, to see what these guys continue to do to change the sport. With the American guys and the young girls coming up, they're going to take over our shoes easily. ... There are a lot of people that are going to be fun to watch over the next four years. I would love to go to worlds next summer [in Barcelona] just to watch these guys compete." Phelps added that he might go to South Africa to cage dive for great white sharks with his new BFF, 20-year-old Le Clos, who will be known as the last swimmer to beat Phelps, in the 200 butterfly.
Phelps sounded eager to see the world through something other than his goggles, so maybe the transition is further along than imagined. The inevitability of age made certain he would be a different swimmer in London than he had been in Beijing, but he also seemed to be a different person. He was less self-absorbed, more engaged. He was even gregarious. During the Americans' pre-London camp in Vichy, France, Phelps even took some turns down a water slide in the training complex. Phelps might not have been the elder statesman of USA swimming, but he was the high-fivin', back-slappin' older brother.
"He's been energetic, joking around with everyone," Schmitt, who trained with Phelps and Bowman, told SI.com on Friday. "It's nice to see how he's been soaking up everything. He's been staying down longer at lunch, breakfast and dinner [in the cafeteria in the athletes' village], talking to everyone. He's just going around and talking to so many people."
This is just one more box that Phelps has checked in his countdown to the second act in American life. Last preliminary swim. Check. Last afternoon training session. Check. Last individual race. Check. Now, finished. Wistful and relentless by equal measure, he stopped to smell the English roses along the way to his swimming dotage.
There were cavils about his London performance. After the 100 fly, Phelps publicly chided himself for his turn -- "mediocre but good enough," Bowman said -- before reminding himself he had won his 17th gold medal and should just be content. Then there was his opening race, an off-the podium swim in the 400 IM, the event that he relishes as much as a line at the DMV. The fourth-place finish was less stunning that the reaction to it. He seemed to go from GOAT (Greatest of All Time) to goat in four-plus minutes, a sudden turn that did not deflate Phelps as much as some other swimmers.
Alain Bernard is one of the principal antagonists in Phelps' Olympic saga, the French 4x100 freestyle anchorman whom Jason Lezak miraculously caught to keep Phelps' eight-for-eight quest alive four years ago. Bernard told SI.com that he was stunned by the reaction to the 400 IM.
"We [swimmers] were disappointed for him after the media perception of the race," Bernard said Friday. "What he has done in the sport is extraordinary. He intimidated me. That is normal. He's the best swimmer in history. I have so much admiration for him."
In the closing days of his career, the murmurs of appreciation turned to roars. After sharing a silver medal with Evgeny Korotyshkin -- behind Phelps -- in the 100 fly, Le Clos recounted he was desperately eager to make South Africa's team for the 2009 world championship because he might have an opportunity to be in the same consecrated water as Phelps.
"My goal was to swim against Michael Phelps," Le Clos said. "I remember I was in the heat before him and I'm like, Damn it. I just wanted to be in the heat with him. ... It's crazy to think he's retiring because I always looked up to him."
Phelps, sitting next to Le Clos on the dais, looked genuinely pleased that the South African had been, as Phelps put it, "bummed out" by that lost encounter.
"I always thought I wanted to change the sport and take it to a new level," Phelps said. "That was a goal of mine. If I can say I've done that, then I can say I've done everything I've wanted to do in my career. This sport has done so much for me, and I'll continue to give back as much as I can to see it grow more."
There is a tangible Phelps Factor. Since Phelps won the first of his six medals in Athens 2004, an additional 32,000 boys (through 2010) have begun swimming. And in the 10-year period ending in 2010, the number of USA Swimming year-round athletes has swelled from 232,264 to 286,891. In the way Se Ri Pak turned South Korea into a land of women golfers and Patrick Roy made Quebec kids want to tug on a mask and drop into a butterfly in a hockey crease, Phelps dragged a country along in his wake.
"Watching Michael swim is beautiful," said Franklin, who won four gold medals in London. "Seeing what he does and how he moves through the water, you can tell that he's meant to do it."
The crowd at the London Aquatics Centre caught a final glimpse of Phelps in the pool Saturday. Fifty seconds and a fraction. One lap up, one lap back. The first Michael Phelps was done. The meet, as Phelps called the Olympics, did not start the way he planned, but he finished it draped in gold. This was his way of saying, "I'm going, but damn it, you'll never forget me."
If Phelps were a country, his 18 gold medals would put him 36th on the all-time summer Olympic tables. He would be tied with Austria and Ethiopia, up one on Argentina. Rewrite late 20th century history, reunite the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Phelpslandia still has a one gold-medal advantage. Maybe Phelps can note this in the journal he has been keeping throughout this year. He hasn't written much in London, although during his travels in the coming weeks, he vows to put pen to paper. When asked how he might sum up the past week, Phelps replied, "I can sum it up in a couple of words. I did it."