When it was all over, they made him come back out for one last bow. Minutes after Michael Phelps had ascended to the top of the Olympic podium for what he promised was the final time, there he was again on the pool deck at the London Aquatics Centre bathed in applause. Still ill at ease out of his natural element—water—he waved and forced a smile, and then hoisted yet another honour to the sky. The trophy from FINA, the international swim federation, was ugly and inappropriately silver but at least they got the inscription right. “To Michael Phelps,” it read, “the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.”
It’s hard to argue the sentiment. In a career that spanned four Games, the 27-year-old American amassed a record 22 medals—18 of them gold. Shut out as a 15-year-old in Sydney, he took Athens by storm four years later, winning six events and earning bronze twice. In Beijing in 2008 he went a perfect eight-for-eight, besting Mark Spitz’s seven swimming golds at Munich in 1972. And for his finale in London, Phelps added four more golds and two silvers. Throw in the couple of dozen more world titles he won and the astounding 29 individual world records he set, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever coming even close to his accomplishments in the pool. Yet somehow it’s hard to mourn his departure from the scene. Frankly put, perfection is boring.
The victory celebrations quickly became rote. His assessments of his own achievements flat and less than insightful. “I’m just happy,” he proclaimed after his London win in the 100-m butterfly, the final individual event of his career. “I can’t finish any better.” And the hordes of media that stood there hanging on his words at the end of every race long ago exhausted all superlatives.
The press looked hard for controversy, eager to paint him as too big for his britches or a bad teammate, but they rarely found it. There was a drunk- driving arrest after Athens and then a photograph of him using his prodigious lung capacity for an Olympic-sized bong hit post-Beijing, but the brand was never really damaged and he continued to perform to expectations in the pool.
And even the so-called rivalries were mostly imagined. In the run-up to London much was made of his teammate Ryan Lochte, who seemed poised to take the mantle as America’s swim darling. And after the über-laid-back Californian—think Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski—triumphed in their first head-to-head final, taking gold in the 400-m individual medley while Phelps finished fourth, the hype machine switched into overdrive. But at Games end, after being beaten by the master in the 200-m IM and failing to make the podium in the 200-m free—a race he beat Phelps in at the last world championships—he remained a pretender to the throne. Just five Olympic medals, and only two of them gold.
It’s odd to say, but Phelps was so dominant throughout that his best and most memorable races might be the ones he lost, or almost blew. In Athens, there was the electric 200-m free final where he placed third behind his idol Ian Thorpe of Australia, and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands. In Beijing, it was the 100-m butterfly, where he was out-swum by Milorad Cavic of Serbia, but managed with a desperate stretch of his enormous arm to touch the sensor pad first for a 0.01-second victory, preserving his seventh gold. And in London, it was the 4 x 100-m medley relay, the final race of his career. The American team was sitting second, .21 seconds behind the Japanese, when Phelps entered the pool for the third butterfly leg. And after his first length the gap had extended to .26 seconds. But over the final 50 m, Phelps made up all that time and surged ahead by an identical margin. Then freestyle specialist Nathan Adrian powered the U.S. home to gold.
After the end of the swim meet, Phelps spent a couple of days taking in the sights of London with his mother, Debbie, who was poolside for every single one of his Olympic medals and has the Twitter handle @MamaPhelpsH20, and his two older sisters. After more than 20 years in the pool, practising every single day of the year including Christmas, he’s not exactly sure what he is going to do with himself now. Phelps mentioned a desire to travel, and joked about trying to lower his golf handicap. He already has some business interests, including a swim school in his native Baltimore. Based on his memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 2008 appearance as the host of Saturday Night Live, a TV gig would seem to be out of the question. “Whatever route I go down I’m going to have goals. I’m still a very competitive person,” he told a press conference. “I’m going to have things I’ll be able to go for and try to achieve. That’s the mentality I have.”
But if there was a clear message it was that he has no regrets about leaving the stage while still at the height of his powers. “I’ve accomplished every goal I ever wanted to. And I think at that point in your career it’s just time to move on.” In his mind, he said, the age of 30 has always been the cut-off. He didn’t want to still be swimming as he entered his third decade.
However, we’ve all seen this movie before. There will be incredible pressures—both personal and commercial—on him to return to the pool. After all, if he were to compete in the next Summer Games, he’d only be 31. Bob Bowman, his long-time coach, said he thinks his star pupil really is done, but in almost the next breath, hedged his bets. “I guess if he finds after a few years he’s searching for something and thinks he can find it in swimming, he could look at it,” he said. All it would take is a slight refocusing: just the shorter events and not so many of them.
Phelps has already proclaimed that he will be in Rio in 2016 to fulfill a promise to his mother. But just as a spectator, intent on finally enjoying all that the Olympics has to offer. “I’m not competing. I’m not competing. I’m not competing,” he said.
If that’s the truth, the U.S. swim team will survive just fine. In addition to Lochte, they have 17-year-old phenom Missy Franklin who won four golds, and Allison Schmitt who took home three, as well as a silver and a bronze.
And with Phelps gone, the next Olympic swim meet might be a lot fun. He had no peers, no rivals and no equals. But at a certain point greatness becomes ordinary.