Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian of all-time
Michael Phelps – Rio Olympics 2016
After 63 Olympics races covering 11,800 meters (7.3 miles) and spanning five Games, Michael Phelps is ready to call it a career. Phelps’s final race is the butterfly on the 4×100-meter medley relay on the last day of swimming competition here. Phelps entered the Rio Games as the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 22 medals, including 18 golds. He has added four golds and a silver, his victories coming in the two freestyle relays and the 200 butterfly and the 200 individual medley, where he became the third American Olympian after the track and field athletes Al Oerter and Carl Lewis to win the same event four times.
Michael Phelps goes from rehab to the greatest Olympian of all-time by Anadrew Webster
Cody Miller, Michael Phelps and Ryan Murphy celebrate winning gold.
It is 1.16am (local time) and Michael Phelps walks into the final press conference of his competitive swimming career holding two mobile phones, thumbing a message on one of them.
Roughly 400 reporters, photographers and cameramen from around the world have been waiting patiently for the greatest Olympian in history to appear.
Two hours earlier, Phelps had won gold as part of the USA’s 4x100m medley relay team. It was the 23rd, and for now last, of his career.
Nicole Johnson, Phelps’ fiancee, with their baby Boomer in the stands.
Phelps had swum the third leg — his pet event, butterfly — and given freestyler Nathan Adrian “clear water” to ensure the fairytale ending before he retired.
When he finally enters the media room, Phelps looks exhausted, but there’s enough life left in him to think big.
A Japanese reporter declares she has watched him compete at the last five Olympics and asks: “How do you observe yourself as a person who has changed?”
“The biggest thing that has changed,” says Phelps, “is that you guys are seeing me. You might not have seen that before. I said this to a number of people: the world is going to see who I am. I think I’ve shown that.
“Everything in life happens for a specific reason. I wouldn’t change anything. I can say now that this is the best place I have ever been in my life. I’m pretty much happy most of the time. You only get a grouchy me if I’m hungry.”
Phelps leaves Rio with five gold medals from two individual and three relay events, as well as a silver from the 100m butterfly. Unless he decides to compete in Tokyo in 2020, it means he finishes his career with 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.
The “23” is a special number because it’s the playing number that belongs to his sporting hero, NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
Whatever medal tally Phelps walks away with doesn’t explain how far he has come since the London Olympics, when he also declared that he was retiring after winning gold with the US in the 4x100m medley.
Phelps had single-mindedly chased down Olympic glory for his entire career. He was still talking about about it at 1.16am. As a child he wanted to “change the sport of swimming”, he said. “And I did.”
Whether that’s hyperbole or not, it’s a large onus to put on your shoulders long before you have developed into a butterflying machine.
After he retired in 2012, Phelps trod a familiar path to most professional athletes … to rehab.
In 2014, he was an inpatient at the famous Meadows facility in Arizona, close to where he trained with his coach of 20 years, Bob Bowman.
It followed his second drink-driving offence, but in reality the issues were much deeper than alcohol. They stemmed from a broken family, an estrangement from his father and selfish life of sporting ambition.
“He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life,” Bowman told the New York Times earlier this year. “It made me feel terrible. I remember one day I said: ‘Michael, you have all the money that anybody your age could ever want or need; you have a profound influence in the world; you have free time — and you’re the most miserable person I know. What’s up with that?’
“I never thought that he would ever change. He hid everything that makes him human for 12 years. The rehab is what opened him up.”
Said Phelps in that same story: “It’s like we dreamed the biggest dream we could possibly dream and we got there. What do we do now?”
He rebuilt his life and found happiness, and the cornerstone of that has been the reconnection with his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, and the birth of their son, Boomer. Both have been as popular with the crowd in the past week as Phelps.
In Rio, he has underlined the greatness we’ve known since Beijing when he won eight gold medals and in London when he won another four when he was, by his own admission, barely interested.
“Every medal this week, I’ve been like, 22?” he said. “Next day. Next day. Next day …”
Then he arrived at the aquatic centre for the final race of his life and the enormity of it sunk in.
“Just walking into the pool tonight, everything started coming out,” he said. “My emotions really started surfacing. Walking up and down the warm-up pool deck, I really started to get choked up, thinking ‘That’s it’. I was definitely a lot more emotional than I was in 2012. I think that’s a good thing. Being able to look back at my career and say we were able to achieve everything we wanted.”
The Americans were the last onto the pooldeck for the final event of the meet, and Phelps was the last of them.
As others disrobed, he stood behind the pack, hood over his head, signature headphones on, looking gun-barrel straight back down the last pool he would swim in competitively.
He still had his shoes on when backstroker Ryan Murphy came out and broke the world record in the first leg.
As breaststroker Cody Miller completed the second, Phelps cast off his clothes and took off his shoes for the final swim of his life. He gave Adrian the clear water he had promised and the USA did it easily ahead of Great Britain and Australia.
When it was all over, there was no punch of the air or even a defiant finger wag, the celebration du jour at the pool at these Games.
To be honest, the 31-year-old looked spent. He looked done. Long after his fellow teammates had celebrated, Phelps was on his haunches and still blowing hard.
Dare I say it, he almost looked old, save for the 88 kilograms of lean muscle and bone that has made him the greatest of all time.
As Phelps left the arena, he raised two hands at the adoring crowd, the bottom lip quivered for a second.
A young official tried to hand him his accreditation but he waved it away. There wouldn’t be a cab driver in Rio de Janeiro who didn’t know this face.
Bowman was also at the press conference in the early hours of the morning, sitting next to Phelps as the father figure the swimmer never had. Would he like to find another athlete of this ability?
“Absolutely not,” the coach laughed. “I’m not even looking. I hope he doesn’t find me. He’s too special, right?”
Phelps said he was looking forward to retirement. Four years ago, it was a place he wasn’t ready to go.
“This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming,” he said. “To do something that nobody else has ever done. And it turned out to be pretty cool.”