He didn't have to come back. Michael Phelps could have made a clean and glorious exit from swimming after going 8-for-8 at the 2008 Olympics. He didn't need to put himself through four more years of grueling pre-dawn workouts, didn't need to tuck himself into a thin-air sleep chamber every night to aid his recovery, didn't need to face month after month of questions about his fitness and his motivation. He could have quit the sport after Beijing or during any of the dozen dark mornings afterward when the alarm went off and he thought, "Why am I doing this?" His fans, if not his sponsors, would have understood. Why not go out on top? Why put all that perfection at risk?
Of course, Phelps did compete at the London Games. He wasn't perfect,
In coming back, Phelps didn't just enrich his trophy case; he kept the spotlight on the sport he vowed to change when he turned pro a decade ago. Ironically, we might not have grasped the full scope of Phelps's impact if he hadn't come in a shocking fourth in his very first event in London, the 400 IM. With the possibility, remote though it always was, of more perfection stripped away, the media focus suddenly widened to include not just Phelps and his main rival, Ryan Lochte, who dominated the 400 IM, but also other US swimmers and young stars from other countries. It was only with that broader perspective that we could really see how vast Phelps's legacy already is.
It would have been difficult to find a swimmer in London who didn't owe Phelps some kind of debt. There was Lochte, whose years of losing to Phelps in the individual medleys had spurred him to train harder and more creatively. There was 100 freestyle champion Nathan Adrian, who has credited Phelps with elevating swimming to a place where guys like him can make enough money to keep training past college and realize their potential. There was France's 20-year-old Yannick Agnel, whose powerful underwater dolphin kicks, popularized by Phelps, helped him crush the field in the 200 freestyle. There was 20-year-old South African Chad le Clos, whose eight years of studying and idolizing Phelps paid off when beat his hero on the final stroke of the 200 butterfly. There was 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the quadruple gold medalist whose quandary about whether to choose college or a potential fortune in sponsorship deals (she chose college) was, in part, a direct effect of Phelps's success in the endorsement market. "There are always groundbreaking contracts in professional baseball, basketball and football, and that's what Michael Phelps has done for swimming," says Cal men's coach Dave Durden. "He has redefined what professional swimming looks like in terms of the money people can make."
Phelps's reshaping of the sport doesn't end there. Since he started winning Olympic gold medals eight years ago, interest in competitive swimming in the U.S. has surged, in both participation -- about 4 percent of the 11 percent jump in USA Swimming membership after Beijing is directly attributable to Phelps, according to the organization's chief executive, Chuck Wielgus -- and spectator interest. At the Olympic Trials in June, Omaha's CenturyLink Center hosted between 11,000 and14,000 people every night -- triple the number who attended Phelps's first Trials, in 2000. Millions more watched NBC's live broadcasts. No doubt that audience included many of the 2,500 kids Phelps's foundation has made water-safe.
Back in May, Phelps sat in a quiet hotel concierge lounge in Dallas and talked about what he hoped his legacy would look like. He didn't mention medals, count or color. "As long as I can look back on my career and say I've done everything I've wanted to do, that's all that matters to me," Phelps said. "I know I've helped change the sport. I think for the people who are coming up in the sport it's going to be better. That's one thing I'd like to be remembered for."
It won't be the only thing he'll be remembered for, but in the long run it might be the most important thing he has achieved.