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  • Michael Phelps arrived in Rio looking to repair his image and cement his legacy. He did that and then some. The greatest Olympian ever tells SI why he’s now stepping out of the pool.
By Tim Layden
December 20, 2016

On the night of Aug. 7, a Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Michael Phelps swam the first race of his fifth and (Definitely! Probably. Maybe?) final Olympics. He churned through the pale-blue water of a 50-meter pool inside an arena that, like much of the surreal Games of 2016, seemed not quite ready. Construction materials lay in piles just beyond the perimeter fencing, and flimsy banners dangled from the ceiling. For more than two weeks, Brazil’s Games would hang by a thread, organized on a budget of pennies and prayer.

They were the Olympics that barely happened, in a country that, like so many others, could not truly afford them. But they would be saved by athletes, and Phelps would do more of the saving than most.

He swam the second leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, the first of his six races. Caeleb Dressel, a 19-year-old rising junior at Florida, led off the event, which the U.S. once dominated but had not won in the Olympics since 2008. Dressel touched the wall second just behind Mehdy Metella of France, the defending Olympic gold medalists. Phelps dived in and had drawn even by the turn. He flipped over, pressed his feet against the tiles and pushed away. He remained underwater for six seconds, pinning his arms over his head, squeezing his legs together and undulating his 6' 4" body in seven repetitions of a dolphin kick. It is aptly named; a swimmer in the midst of this transitional stroke appears to cross species, rolling his lower body, hips to toes, for propulsion the way a dolphin hurtles through the ocean. One by one, the racers surfaced, until only Phelps remained wholly submerged.

There was in this moment a mystery about what Phelps would be in Brazil. The world knew what he had been: a boy wonder as a 15-year-old Olympian in Sydney; a super-human Aquaman who won a total of 14 gold medals in Athens and Beijing; a surly mortal in London; and, after that, a celebrity train wreck, culminating in a DUI arrest, public humiliation, self-loathing, a visit to a rehab center from which he emerged, to his mind, reborn. But now what?

Now this: Phelps broke the surface more than half a body length in the lead. Swimming is one of those Olympic sports that the public embraces for eight days every four years, with little under-standing of its intricacies. Here, though, was a moment of obvious greatness. Phelps had busted open an Olympic sprint race in six seconds while underwater. As he windmilled his arms, the crowd gasped, then roared. Phelps sensed the placid water around him, the absence of other bodies and was struck with overwhelming joy. The race was essentially over (the U.S. won by 0.61 seconds). And he was back.

Two months later, in a restaurant half a mile from his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., Phelps recalled the moment. This was the first real test of the 31-year-old Phelps’s newfound emotional peace and restored fitness. He had delivered a series of stunning workouts at a pre-Olympic training camp in Atlanta that verified his readiness, and he had always been a magnificent race-day performer. But still, after everything he had endured, he needed to succeed on this stage to convince himself that it was all real. “Honestly, right there in the middle of the race,” he says, “I started smiling. I was thinking, O.K., we’re going to have a fun week.”

***

Phelps’s relay split of 47.12 seconds was the fastest of his career. That first race was cathartic for everyone close to him too. The memory of it moves Phelps’s wife, Nicole, to tears. She was in the stands that night with their (already famous) three-month-old son, Boomer, and Michael’s mother, Debbie. Michael and Nicole had been on and off as a couple since 2008, but Nicole had never attended an Olympics with him. “Talking to him after that race,” she says, “seeing how happy he was. You could tell it wasn’t just happiness, it was relief, too. It was like he was saying, ‘I’m here, I got this, and I’m good to go.’”

Afterward Bob Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach and the U.S. Olympic men’s coach, told reporters, “Michael usually works this way: When one thing is good, everything is pretty good. He doesn’t work in parts.”

Over the next six days Phelps would win four more gold medals and one silver. His career medal total would reach 28, including 23 gold; next on the list is Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals, nine gold. Beyond that, his (Definitely! Probably. Maybe?) final Olympics was different. In Sydney he had been so young. In Athens and especially in Beijing he had been so focused, “there was no time for emotion,” says Bowman. “It was just on to the next race.” In London, Phelps was damaged goods: under-trained, detached and, strictly speaking, sick, in ways that wouldn’t be cured for more than two more years. But in Brazil, he was ... present.

Olympics
After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead

Phelps found himself surrounded by swimmers who had grown up idolizing him. Photos surfaced of Phelps posing with a young Ryan Murphy of the U.S., a young Masato Sakai of Japan (who took the silver behind Phelps in the 200 butterfly), a young Katie Ledecky. Multiple athletes approached Phelps and told him that they had posters of him on their bedroom walls. In past Olympics he was never around to hear stories like those. “I was never a leader, I was never even really there,” says Phelps. “This time I was part of the team.” He carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony. In the Olympic Village, when some young teammates said they had never heard of the 1986 movie Hoosiers, Phelps sat them down and made them watch it. On the victory stand after Phelps’s gold medal in the 200 butterfly, during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” childhood friend Brian Shea, who was in the crowd, stretched out the “Ooooooohhhhh,” in the final lines, as Orioles fans do at Camden Yards. (Phelps is from Baltimore.) Phelps broke up. It was all fun this time.

Remarkably, his body held up. After Phelps committed fully to the Games in 2015, Bowman had trained him hard, but at far lesser volume than before ’04 or ’08. Still, his balky right shoulder required two cortisone shots in the months leading to Rio. Bowman estimates that the Phelps who swam in Brazil was 75% of the Phelps who swam in Beijing, physically. “So many things could have gone wrong,” says Phelps. “But for some reason, it was meant to be.”

So it was that Phelps stepped onto a starting block for the 100-meter butterfly on the night of Aug. 12. There would be one more race, the 4 × 100-meter medley relay the next day in which the U.S. was a prohibitive favorite, but the 100 fly was Phelps’s last individual race. He spotted 21-year-old Joseph Schooling of Singapore and the University of Texas a big lead at the turn. Schooling, too, had a picture of himself with Phelps, taken in 2008. Phelps closed hard, cutting into Schooling’s lead. And Phelps also began thinking about life on the other side of the wall.

“I’m coming into my last four or five strokes, and I remember thinking, Whatever happens, this is how it’s supposed to end,” says Phelps. “Maybe I’m going 6-for-6 and that’s perfect, or maybe Joe is going to hang on and I’m O.K. with that. That’s when I knew I was ready to retire. Any other time, I would have been livid about finishing second.” Schooling won the gold. Phelps finished in a three-way dead heat with Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, two of his longtime rivals. “And that was perfect,” says Phelps. “It was time to move on.”

The next night Phelps got his 23rd gold, in the medley relay, and, his Olympics over, he celebrated with family and friends. During the small party Debbie wrapped her arms around her son’s neck and whispered in his ear, “Tokyo 2020. Four more years, question mark.”

Michael pulled back. Debbie had coaxed him similarly after the London Games, but in 2016 the son lovingly scolded the parent. “Mom,” he said, “don’t start this now. If you want to go to Tokyo, I’ll take you to Tokyo. We don’t need the Olympics for that.”

Gabriel Buoys/AFP/Getty Images

***

It is another sunny autumn morning in Scottsdale. Michael and Nicole Phelps have slid into a booth in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Within 20 minutes they have been asked to pose for a selfie—while eating—a request they accommodated. They are married now. In fact, they were married on June 13 in their backyard in Paradise Valley. “Simple reason,” says Michael. “Boomer’s last name was Phelps and Nicole’s was Johnson, and that was going to make overseas travel more difficult. We were getting married anyway, so we just did it.” There was a larger ceremony on Oct. 29 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and they will consider Oct. 29 their anniversary.

Debbie might have been teasing her youngest child that night in Rio. “[It was] just something to make him laugh and for me to be able to see his expression,” she said in a text message. “What we call a DP Moment.” But Michael’s retirement—or any possible comeback—will be a theme for the next several years, and possibly beyond. Phelps has retired previously and come back. His public will believe he is retired when he’s not in Tokyo in a swimsuit. Phelps has already mastered the subtle tease, the hedge and the unequivocal repudiation. A couple of weeks after Rio he did a workout with his close friend and two-time Olympian Allison Schmitt. As Phelps describes that day, the tease comes first. “I said to Schmitty, ‘I could probably go four more years,’” he says. Then a hedge: “But could I put in the true, honest hard work? Probably. But I have so many other things going.” Finally the repudiation: “And there’s no reason. I’m tapping out. I’m closing. I’m done.”

He paused after that proclamation and added, “The hardest thing is going to be not having the chance to represent my country. Not having the chance to stand on the medal platform and hear the national anthem.” But, “I’m at peace with how things ended. I’d rather have a healthy body in 20 years than kill myself more now. To me, it’s a no-brainer.” He is good at this dialogue, and frankly, the equivocation is also good for the Phelps brand, which is most valuable when wet.

Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, has known Phelps for more than a decade. He signed him to a dryland apparel contract in 2010, and in 2015 to another, five-year deal. They are not just business partners, but golf buddies and friends. “I know what Michael is going to say about Tokyo: ‘I’ll be 35 years old, I can’t stare at the black line anymore.’ I understand. But Tokyo is going to be a great Olympics. He said he was retiring after London, when he was 27, with the lung capacity of a Great White Shark. You can bet I’m going to be nudging him as best I can for the next four years. I think he believes he is retired now. Three years is a long time to rest.”

(In hearing that, Phelps says, laughing, “KP will always say that.” Then the tease: “If I do get the desire to come back, great.” Followed by the repudiation: “Right now, I just don’t see it.”)

Peter Carlisle, Phelps’s longtime agent, says, “I wouldn’t have guessed that he would come back this time. But he did. Now, this retirement is a much more informed decision. Of course, he doesn’t know what it’s like to watch the Olympics without being in them.”

Bowman, 52, has seen every high and every low of Phelps’s career. A few weeks after Rio, Phelps looked at his Olympic goal sheet, which included world records in both the 200 butterfly and 200 individual medley, neither of which was achieved. He texted Bowman a reminder of these relative failures, as if there were still unfinished business. Bowman texted back, “Let it go,” followed by a smiley-face emoji. “The difference now is the family,” says Bowman. “They have Boomer, and I’m sure there will be more kids. I just don’t see him spending the time, or really feeling a need to do it. His age showed a little bit in Rio. He was tired by the end. But he loved it. The world loved it. I was certain he wouldn’t come back after London because he hated it so much. This time I’m certain he won’t come back because he loved it so much.”

Since Rio, Michael, Nicole and Boomer have traveled to Chicago, New York City (three times), Boston, the Twin Cities (for the Ryder Cup), Dallas, Milan and Los Angeles (three times). In November they went to China and visited the site of his 2008 triumphs—Beijing’s Water Cube. Phelps says that always preparing for the next competition left him no time for reflection.

He spent three hours in the Water Cube, laughing and crying. “I’m finally to the point where I understand what happened there,” he says. A trip to London is next, to come to terms with the memories of an Olympics he didn’t enjoy (despite winning four gold medals and two silvers).

Over breakfast, Nicole speaks about her husband’s retirement. “It’s been fun to watch him get back into the pool, and he and Schmitty are pushing each other. He’s in the right place now, but it will be interesting to see him in four years.”

She pauses.

“Actually,” she says, “I give it eight years, and then Boomer is like, ‘Come on, Dad, let’s see it one more time.’” (The 2024 Olympics could be in Los Angeles; Phelps would be 39.)

Michael: “I played golf with [Clippers guard] Chris Paul in September. He didn’t go to Rio, and he told me, ‘Wait until your son is old enough and he says, ‘Daddy, why aren’t you out there?’ Chris said when he didn’t go this time, his son was asking him every day why he wasn’t there.” (Paul told SI, “He’s going to get that edge again. He’s too competitive.”)

Nicole: “Anyway, I see that being the only thing that could bring him back—to swim for Boomer.”

Michael: “Eight years down the road, I would be so far removed that it’s almost impossible to come back, physically. Unless I trained for a full four years, and that’s not happening, so, to end this conversation, I’m done.”

Nicole: “But you would be the oldest [swimmer] to win a gold medal.”

Michael: “Thank you, I’ll take the medal count.”

Prolonged laughter follows.

To appreciate why Phelps is so sure he doesn’t need competitive swimming—even if someday he might want swimming—it’s important to go back to The Meadows residential treatment facility in Wickenburg, Ariz., 50 miles northwest of Phoenix, where Phelps spent 45 days in the fall of 2014. He had hit bottom after his DUI arrest on the night of Sept. 29, and friends and family had persuaded him to seek treatment (though not for a single issue). It was at The Meadows that Phelps let go of a lifetime of anger and faced down his struggles with fame and success. Treatment changed him, and Phelps is certain that the change is permanent. “Look where I was two years ago,” he says. “Look where I’ve gone and where I’ve come. Now I understand what friends are. I never talked to my father, and now we text and call and we’re fine. I’m me, every day, and it feels pretty goddamn good.”

Among his closest friends at The Meadows was Morgan Guynes, now 49, a Hollywood special effects technician (and the brother of actress Demi Moore). Guynes and Phelps were together in a group of six patients. “It’s a strange environment,” says Guynes. “You’re baring your soul every day to strangers, so it’s important that you have some sort of friend group. Michael put a lot of determination into the process pretty quickly. We all knew who he was from Day One, but people in there could give a s--- who you are on the outside. It’s who you are in there. And in there, he was a great person to follow.”

Guynes was there when Phelps discussed the anger he had long held toward his father (Phelps’s parents divorced when he was nine, and he long resented his father for leaving) and when he talked about the influences he had allowed into his life after Beijing—gambling, partying, drinking, parasitic companions. “We saw him let that stuff go,” says Guynes. When some young men were brought to The Meadows with nothing more than the clothing on their backs, Phelps used one of his landline calls to arrange for Under Armour to send gear to them.

Guynes was watching the Olympics on TV when Phelps was shown, hooded and scowling in the ready room—the instantly viral Phelps Face—while Le Clos shadow-boxed nearby. “I was laughing my ass off,” says Guynes. “That’s not Michael. He’s a sweet, happy person. I thought it was hilarious.”

The Michael Phelps who walked into The Meadows two years ago was not equipped to handle a life without swimming. The Michael Phelps who walked out is. Rio was more emotionally fulfilling than his previous Olympics; the experience has given him the confidence to live a life away from competitive swimming. For now.

In early October, Phelps went to Chicago to tape a joint interview with Duke and Team USA basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. In the green room Krzyzewski probed Phelps for the source of his success. “We talked about preparation, about learning to prepare to win,” says Krzyzewski. “He told me how he would practice scenarios where he has a problem with his goggles, and how he won a gold medal with his goggles full of water.” (This happened in the 200 butterfly at the 2008 Olympics.)

“Watching his interaction with his wife and their baby, watching him speak on stage,” says Krzyzewski, “you can see that he likes who he is, not just what he does. I think he’s a special guy. And he could really do good things from his platform.”

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

***

If swimming is over for Phelps, there will be hours, days and months to fill. His life has been a blur since Rio, but that will slow as the distance grows from his last medal ceremony.

The Michael Phelps Foundation’s IM program—IM refers not only to Individual Medley but also to “I am”—says it has reached 16,000 children since its inception in 2010. It offers water-safety courses, recreational activities, swim training and wellness education. “I can travel more, and be around the kids in person,” says Phelps. He also envisions his MP brand of racing swimwear as a competitor to Arena and Speedo (his former sponsor). “In a dream world,” says Phelps, “I would love to get Katie Ledecky.” (Ledecky, who won four gold medals in Rio, is swimming at Stanford and unsponsored, in compliance with NCAA rules. There will be a bidding war to put a suit on her when she goes professional.)

Clearly, Phelps will not stray far from pools. He will work out in them, teach in them and sell products to be used in them. Bowman, for one, likes this. “I think as long as he’s in touch with swimming, he’ll live a good, happy life,” he says. “If he gets away from those things, I would worry.” Phelps would like to work in broadcasting, but he has received no offers. Olympics rights-holder NBC, the logical landing spot, remains interested in maintaining a relationship with him, though, according to a person with knowledge of the network’s plans, the nature of that relationship hasn’t been determined.

Phelps has sponsorship deals with 10 companies, including Beats by Dre, Omega, Wheaties and Intel. He will remain tethered to Under Armour, a major athlete apparel company headquartered in his hometown of Baltimore. Rare is the athlete who can sustain marketing power in retirement; Michael Jordan is the glaring exception. “Every athlete who comes to us says, ‘I’m looking for a Jordan deal,’” says Under Armour’s Plank. “Some really good athletes don’t sell product. I’ll say this, the role Michael will serve with us won’t be ceremonial.”

Carlisle says, “There is a challenge now that he’s retired. But the awareness of his brand is unique.” Phelps’s problems—the DUI, the rehab—damaged his image, but he largely repaired it with his humble comeback, not to mention five more gold medals. Phelps is trying to help. For many years he was reluctant to interact with strangers. “I was a pretty big a------,” he says. After breakfast in Scottsdale, he posed for selfies as a line formed. And he usually held the phone (longer arms and more experience).

***

In late August, Michael and Nicole and Schmitt spread out all 28 of Michael’s medals on their kitchen counter. It was the first time that Phelps had ever looked at all of his medals at once. “No, I can’t process 28,” he would say later, answering a question. “It’s too much.”

But the medals touch him in another way, each a story of its own, intimate and memorable: The first, from the 400 individual medley in Athens, after which he held his mother’s hand through a chain-link fence; the 100 butterfly in Beijing, when he touched out Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by .01 of a second. “I knew he was gliding, and if I took another half-stroke ...” says Phelps. And then his voice trails off. “So many feelings. Happy. Sad. Angry. I never took the time to think back. I just moved on.”

There is a lifetime now. The medals will not be placed on display. They will be put back in safe storage, out of sight and out of reach, beckoning in a voice that grows weaker. It is time to tell new stories that come without ceremony or reward. This future is different from the others. It is time to move on. Again.

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