August 5, 2012

Phelps concludes career with – what else? – a gold

It is not the American way for an athlete to bid farewell from the top of the mountain. There is always one more season, one more challenge, one more contract.

LONDON – It is not the American way for an athlete to bid farewell from the top of the mountain. There is always one more season, one more challenge, one more contract.

Willie Mays stumbled infamously around center field. Brett Favre made a mockery of the word "retirement." Shaquille O'Neal morphed into The Big Bit Player.

Michael Phelps did it his way, this way: Gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. Gone.

"I did everything I wanted to," he said. "If you can say that about your career, there is no need to move forward."

The final session of the Olympic swimming competition turned into a Saturday night farewell party for Phelps, 27. The public address announcer primed the crowd thusly: "Are you ready to see the last race of a certain Michael Phelps?"

No matter that the race was a medley relay, with 31 other swimmers competing. The U.S. team of Phelps, Matthew Grevers, Brendan Hansen and Nathan Adrian won the 4x100-meter relay in 3 minutes, 29.35 seconds, with Phelps chasing down the Japanese team in the third leg, the butterfly, to put the Americans ahead for good. After the race, swimmers from other nations lined up to shake his hand.

FINA, the world governing body of swimming, presented him with a silver trophy inscribed with these words: "The Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time."

In Beijing, he won a record eight gold medals. In London, he became the first male swimmer to win the same event three consecutive times – and he did it twice. His Olympic records – 22 total medals, 18 gold medals – might never be broken.

"I've looked up to Michael Jordan my whole life, because he has done something that nobody else has ever done," Phelps said. "He is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game.

"I have been able to become the best swimmer of all time."

The United States capped a dominant week in the pool with victories in the two medley relays Saturday. The women's team – Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt – set a world record of 3:52.05.

After winning two gold medals in Beijing, the U.S. women won eight in London. The men also won eight, and the total of 16 was the most for the Americans since 1984, when the Soviet-led boycott weakened the field.

The United States collected 30 swimming medals, one shy of the total from Beijing but almost three times more than any other country. Japan won 11, followed by Australia and China with 10 each.

With Phelps, amid the history, there was a humanity that emerged.

In 2008, the quest to go eight for eight bordered on obsession. Perfection was required. The journey was a solo one. The slightest wrinkle could end the dream. He scarcely said a word to his teammates.

"Back then, the only perspective was performance," said his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. "It was really just focusing on every detail we could. He didn't have an appreciation for the bigger picture of what he was doing, or anything else that was going on around him."

This time, Phelps did not sit silently in team meetings. He told stories, enjoyed the rookie skits in training camp, encouraged teammates during practice and wished them good luck before their races. He cried on the medal podium and after he warmed down from his final race.

Franklin is the heir apparent to Phelps as America's marquee swim star. She won five medals in London, at 17, an age at which Phelps had none. Yet she had no illusions, teenage or otherwise, about replacing Phelps.

"I don't think his shoes will ever be filled," Franklin said. "Hopefully, I can make small little paths next to him."

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