LONDON -- The first day of retirement can be a peculiar thing. After years and years of work, of routine, of responsibility and expectation, it can't be easy to break from the only life you know. So Michael Phelps woke up early Sunday morning, his first day as a 27-year-old retiree, restless.
"I wish I could sleep a little longer," he told reporters gathered in a convention center in Westminster, just 16 hours after the world's most decorated Olympian earned his 22nd (and final, he swears) medal. "I probably slept about four hours last night. I just woke up. I'm used to getting up early, been doing it for the last 20 years.... Not getting up at 6 a.m. is something I'm looking forward to."
That seemed to be the running theme -- 'looking forward' -- as he spoke Sunday afternoon. He's looking forward to sleeping in, spending time with his friends, to travel the world and actually get to enjoy it. He's looking forward to sitting on a beach, staring out at an ocean and not have to associate it to a pool. Like many retirees, he's looking forward to playing more golf.
"Short game, putting, hitting the ball straight is another problem of mine as well," he said. "So there are a lot of things I need to work on. Those are the things I'm going to try to improve."
It's obvious why Phelps is so eager to look forward because when he looks back, there's really nothing left to see. He has stepped away from competitive swimming having achieved everything he sought out to do. When he set his personal goals for the London Games, the well-guarded secret he shares only with coach Bob Bowman, they were specific, certain times he wanted to post in his Olympic victory lap, but they were also grand. "Being able to come out and be the most decorated [Olympian] was something we really wanted," he finally revealed. "To be the best and do something nobody else has ever done was something that was there."
Phelps' legacy as an Olympian will live long. If anything, these Games have demonstrated just how difficult it is to do what Phelps did in Beijing four years ago. Ryan Lochte, who was poised to be a breakout star in 2012, leaves London with a respectable five medals -- two golds, two silvers and a bronze. But because of Phelps's eight-gold feat in 2008, most everything else has come to seem disappointing in comparison.
And that really is the conundrum that faces the future of swimming now. While Phelps can look forward to vacations and rounds of golf, the sport must look forward to life without Phelps. He has long said that he hoped to change the sport, just like he believes his idol Michael Jordan revolutionized basketball. And in many ways, Phelps has. Take Chad Le Clos, the 20-year-old South African swimmer who out-touched Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly. Le Clos was amazed by Phelps after watching him in Beijing, hoped only to swim in the same pool as his idol. Or Missy Franklin, who was the first woman to swim seven Olympic events, convinced it could be done since Phelps had swum and won eight.
Certainly, the London Games have revealed budding stars -- Franklin, Le Clos, China's Sun Yang and the U.S.'s Kate Ledecky -- but they'll have to continue to swim in Phelps's shadow even as he has left the pool. Questions and comparisons are likely to follow, fair or not. Like Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps possesses the ability to be as notable in his absence as he is in his presence.
For his part, though, Phelps says he will continue to be an ambassador for the sport. "The competitive part of my career is over, but it doesn't mean I'm done with the sport," he said Sunday. "I'm still going to go with my goal [of raising the profile of swimming]. It hasn't reached the peak that I want it to reach yet."
He says he is looking forward to watching World Championships next year, going to Brazil as a fan in 2016. He's excited to see what the next generation of swimmers will be able to achieve, those that watched him four years ago or just last week. It will be up to them to carry on his legacy because Phelps is a little tired now. He didn't get much sleep. He is relieved to be done and ready to watch someone else