Then, he would have joined the elite company of guys like John Elway, Tony La Russa, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Russell as sports figures who retired after winning a championship in their last season.
But Phelps decided to put his legacy on the line and try for glory at one last Olympics, heading to London to compete one last time.
However, so far, things in London haven’t exactly gone the way Phelps was probably planning.
After losing out on gold and failing to medal in the 400 individual medley against teammate Ryan Lochte, Phelps is in danger of having his career end in a disappointing whimper.
He still has a chance to win five more gold medals, though, so it’s too early to call this year’s Olympics a disappointment.
He also has a great chance to acquire the record for most overall medals by an Olympian in a career.
All he needs to do to get that record is win two more medals, something he should be more than capable of doing in five events.
But if his performance in the 400 IM is any indication of things to come, getting that record could be easier said than done.
He already holds the record for most gold medals won in a career, with 14, but getting the overall medal record without winning at least one gold in this year’s Olympics would be disappointing.
We’ll always remember Phelps and his historic 2008 Olympic performance, but it would certainly tarnish his legacy if he left London without a single gold.
And if he fails to win two more total medals, it’ll become clear that he was just another athlete who held on too long and didn’t know when to call it quits.
That would be a disappointing end to the career of the greatest swimmer in American, and Olympic, history.