A completely transformed Michael Phelps came to his fifth Olympics determined to do it right.
If London 2012 was drudgery then Rio 2016 would be joyful, a final chance to savor his life as the greatest swimmer of all time, an amphibian Olympian unlike any other.
Phelps didn’t intend to be as audacious in Brazil as he was in Beijing, when he won eight gold medals in eight straight magical days inside the glowing Water Cube. But he was anyway, winning four races before fatigue caught up with his 31-year-old body and he lost his final individual event Friday by .65 seconds to a kid from Singapore who can go to his grave saying he beat Michael Phelps.
Phelps touched in a three-way tie for silver with rivals Laszlo Cseh and Chad le Clos and shared the podium with them, which he thought was an amusing twist on his attempt to four-peat in the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps was closing on winner Joseph Schooling but he ran out of water.
“We all tied for second — that’s kind of cool,” Phelps said. “A special, decent way to finish my last race.”
He will strap on goggles again Saturday for the butterfly leg of the medley relay but he doesn’t even plan to warm down afterward. Phelps insists he really is done, although Ryan Lochte has “guaranteed” that Phelps will be back for Tokyo 2020. And why not? He could just keep winning, another four, five, six golds, and the swimmer who hates to lose more than he loves to win could avenge the 100 fly loss as he did the 200 fly here.
It would be comforting to marvel at Phelps for another Olympics. We’re so accustomed to seeing him flapping those impossibly long arms as he leans into start position on the blocks, dolphin-kicking with those impossibly large feet, stroking through the water with those impossibly large hands and ripping off his USA cap to reveal those endearingly large ears. We’re so accustomed to hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over and over during the first week of the Olympics.
But it would better if Phelps retires on top. Rather than grow stale and be taken for granted, he can leave the trail he blazed for the next generation of swimming stars, led by the new medal multiplier from Maryland, Katie Ledecky, who crushed the opposition and her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle Friday with a time of 8:06.68. She said he’s been like a big brother to her, and a hero to athletes everywhere.
Think about it. Phelps has won 22 gold medals — 13 in individual events, which broke Leonidas of Rhodes’ 2,160-year record — and 27 total. That averages out to 5.4 medals per Olympics. Almost all the 10,000 athletes here would be ecstatic to take home one bronze. If he was a country, he’d rank 38th all time on the gold medal table. The next most-decorated Olympian, gymnast Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union, won nine golds and 18 total.
More remarkable than Phelps’ sustained excellence at an advanced swimming age was his courage and honesty in the public eye.
He let us in. He confessed that he’d lost his love of swimming by 2012. The years of training up to 90,000 meters per week — that’s 56 miles and 1,800 laps — and the hours concentrating on a black line in the sensory deprivation chamber of the pool had worn him down. So had gargantuan expectations, made greater by his ambition. Coach Bob Bowman, who has plotted Phelps’ Olympic schedules down to the minute, disclosed that they initially planned to go for nine golds in Beijing.
“I’m not sure the world has ever seen who I am,” Phelps said. “They saw me as a swimmer but not as a person.”
The demands of setting world records and popularizing a country club sport made him robotic. A medal machine. He was purposely dull, to protect himself from the scrutiny and introspection that would reveal his emptiness. Everyone assumed he was a one-dimensional chlorine junkie.
“I merely went from one meet to the next, one medal to the next, one record to the next,” he said. “I’ve spent more than half my life in a swimming pool. That’s nuts.”
He had no idea what his future held but he grew to detest swimming. Without a stopwatch dictating his days he was adrift. After two DUI arrests, Phelps admitted he was spending too many late nights out playing poker and drinking. He checked himself into an Arizona rehab center to undergo therapy. When he came out, he was a new man, clean and sober, awaking headache-free and ready to find the person who had drowned under the weight of all that gold.
“I had a hard time sharing. I dodged questions,” he said. “I’m in a freer frame of mind now. I’m able to look back and see that my life is a dream come true.”
He and Bowman decided to mount one more Olympic campaign. Phelps lost 30 pounds and embraced the workload he had shirked pre-London.
“I felt like a kid again,” he said. “That was the only reason I was able to get back to where I once was.”
In Rio, Phelps was unafraid to express his affection for 3-month-old son Boomer, his fiancée Nicole Johnson, his mother, the father he was once estranged from, his opponents, and Bowman, his mentor since age 11.
His times have not been that far off those of his prime. In the 200 IM he was only .43 off his 2008 world record. His time Friday was faster than in 2012. But the idea of doing another Olympics at age 35, two decades after his first Olympics in Sydney — it’s tempting for a racer but he’s tired.
“Getting out of the pool is more painful but standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem is as sweet as ever. So many memories go through my head. Each time I hear it I’m in tears.
“It’s wild to think I learned to swim over 20 years ago and it’s all stopping, competition-wise. It’s been a hell of a career.”
Phelps beamed as he stood on the medal stand with Cseh and le Clos. The old, unhappy Phelps would have been mad about losing and antsy to warm up for his next race. The grownup Phelps paused to take it all in, the spectators unfurling flags, the swimmers parading out for the 50 free, the smell of chlorine, the sound of sharp whistles, the sight of his baby boy.
He raised a flipper-sized hand and waved.
Farewell, Michael. Thank you for redefining the concept of impossible.
And on your way out, be sure to remind Ledecky to have fun.