Michael Phelps' legendary Olympic career came to a close on Saturday, 12 years and 22 medals after he first entered our sporting universe.
Feels weird, doesn't it—to talk about Phelps in the past tense?
Michael Phelps swam in four Olympic Games.
He broke 39 world records (via Wikipedia).
He won 18 gold medals.
The man left us with a lot to digest.
So, we'll start with the latter—those 18 golds, power ranking each one in what I hope will be a sort of tastefully numbing tribute to the greatest Olympian of all time.
And away we go...
Almost as a matter of principle, we've got to rank this race last.
Phelps didn't even swim the event final.
In a gesture of goodwill, Phelps ceded his spot to Ian Crocker, giving the veteran one last chance at Olympic gold.
Crocker and his American teammates capitalized, blowing past Germany to set a new world record.
Phelps received a gold medal for swimming in the prelims, giving him eight total for the Athens Games and tying him with Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for the most medals won at a single Olympiad.
Frankly, there isn't much to say about this race.
Phelps won easily but not with any sort of memorable emphasis, beating Japan's Takashi Yamamoto by just over half a second.
Phelps did set a new Olympic record, but fell about one-tenth of a second shy of his standing world record.
The medal was Phelps' fourth of the 2004 Athens Games.
Phelps won. Phelps set a world record. Phelps secured his sixth gold medal of the Beijing Games.
And poor Laszlo Cseh (Hungary) finished second to Phelps for the third time in the same Olympic meet.
At the time, it didn't seem like much.
Phelps cruised to an easy victory in the 200-meter individual medley, finishing almost two full seconds clear of the silver medalist—some long-haired upstart named Ryan Lochte.
And while the margin of victory gave little away, this race was indeed the first installment of what would later become the most celebrated rivalry in Olympic swimming history.
This race is notable for two reasons: the big names involved and the minuscule margin of victory.
The Aussie lineup featured two all-time greats, distance legend Grant Hackett and freestyle maestro Ian Thorpe (racing in the last relay of his storied career).
Team USA had the young guns, Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay and a decidedly greasier version of Ryan Lochte.
In a race that came down to the final 25 meters, American anchor leg Klete Keller held off a hard-charging Thorpe to win gold for Team USA and set a new national record.
Interesting note about the 200-meter freestyle: It's the only individual event Phelps won just once.
But when he did win it, boy did he make his mark.
With Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband retired and gone, Phelps had little trouble dispatching of a field that included South Korea's Park Taehwan and fellow American Peter Vanderkaay.
He broke his own world record by almost a full second and won his ninth career gold medal, tying the record for most golds won in an Olympic career.
He has since doubled that mark.
This was the ultimate example of a Phelps race where they could've just handed him the gold beforehand and saved everyone the trouble of toweling off.
Swimming alongside Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Ricky Berens, Phelps helped Team USA finish five seconds ahead of the second-place Russians.
Historical footnote: Phelps and Co. became the first relay team to break the event's seven-minute barrier.
In the last individual event of his storied career, Michael Phelps won gold.
What else did you expect?
Exacting some measure of revenge after his silver in the 200-meter fly, Phelps scored a rather easy win over South Africa's Chad le Clos.
And after a week that started with small doses of disappointment—most notably his fourth-place finish in the 400 individual medley—the victory was particularly sweet.
All things considered, this might be the most dominant performance of Phelps' career.
Swimming in his first event at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps finished almost two seconds ahead of his own world record and nearly three seconds ahead of—guess who?—Laszlo Cseh.
Considering the physical rigors of the 400 individual medley—and the fact that Phelps needed to save energy for the busy week ahead—it's hard to fathom how MP could've posted such a startling time.
It's the only one of his Beijing world records that still stands.
You might remember this race as "the one where Michael Phelps looked super pissed afterward, even though he'd broken a freakin' world record."
The object of Phelps' ire were his goggles, which filled with water at the 100-meter turn.
His eyes stinging with chlorinated confusion, Phelps still managed to set a new world record.
At this point, many of us realized that Phelps was not human.
We remain convinced of that fact to this day.
The same night he finished a disappointing second in his signature race, the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps bounced back to lead an easy Team USA victory in the 4x200 freestyle relay.
The win gave Phelps 19 medals for his Olympic career, more than any other athlete in the 116-year history of the modern Games.
And the world said: "Bravo!"
Of all the individual gold medals in Phelps' trophy case, this might be the only one where he entered the race as a true betting underdog (2004's 100 fly being the other option).
Rival Ryan Lochte looked the better man in qualifying, but Phelps saved an extra gear for the final and took advantage of Lochte's fatigue to earn a fairly convincing win.
Most notably, this race was the final installment of the Phelps-Lochte rivalry.
Fittingly, it was in the same event that produced their first Olympic meeting. And it yielded the same result: Phelps, Gold—Lochte, Silver.
Also of historical note, the win made Phelps the first male swimmer to three-peat in an Olympic event.
This was where it all began—Phelps' first gold medal, first individual gold medal and first world record set at an Olympic Games.
On a less clerical level, the race gave viewers a taste of just how dominant Phelps could be.
The Baltimore Bullet finished almost three seconds ahead of his closest rival, American Erik Vendt, and almost 12 seconds ahead of the eighth-place finisher.
Michael, Michael, Michael—parting is such sweet sorrow.
With emphasis on the sorrow part.
In his final swim, the 4x100-meter medley relay, Phelps staked Team USA to a lead it would never relinquish.
The win gave him 18 gold medals for his career and 22 overall—numbers that now belong alongside Chamberlain's 100 and DiMaggio's 56 in the hall of athletic obscenity.
Hats off to you, Mr. Phelps.
With so much of your life yet to be lived, we can only wonder where you're headed next.
Code name: The Record Setter
In all honesty, this wasn't all that interesting of a race. The Americans came in as prohibitive favorites, having never lost the event in Olympic competition.
And they weren't about to lose it now.
With Phelps swimming butterfly, Team USA cruised to a world record and a 0.70 second lead over Australia.
More importantly, the victory gave Phelps a record eight gold medals in one Olympic Games.
And since that feat is the one we most commonly associate with Phelps, this race has to get a little power-ranking love.
You could call this the most memorable gold of Phelps' career.
You could call it the most dramatic.
You could even, in some respects, call it the most unexpected.
But the greatest?
I'm not convinced.
As most of you will recall, the man of the moment was veteran freestyle sprinter Jason Lezak, who chased down Frenchman Alain Bernard in the anchor leg to cap an incredible American comeback.
The race was significant for Phelps insomuch as it kept his quest for eight gold medals alive, but he was more bystander than beast—a willow on the wind rather than an agent of greatness.
Epic race? Absolutely. But I can't call it Phelps' best.
In a career full of chills, this was the original hair-raiser—a first glimpse at Phelps' knack for histrionics.
The stage was set as a battle between two Americans—Phelps and defending world champ Ian Crocker.
Crocker had taken the world record from Phelps a year earlier at 2003 World Championships, becoming the first man under 51 seconds. He followed up by beating Phelps at U.S. Trials and setting a new world best.
But in Athens, Phelps was a fingertip better.
Over an epic final 10 meters, Phelps flew past a fading (or perhaps tightening) Crocker to win by four one-hundredths of a second.
Also of note, the medal was Phelps' seventh of the 2004 Games, tying him with Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi for the most medals won by an American at one Olympiad.
This is ultimate Phelps.
He trailed Serbian rival Milorad Cavic with 25 meters to go.
He surged forward with uncommon poise and purpose.
He lunged for the wall, and by some miracle of physics we may never understand, out touched Cavic by one one-hundredth of a second.
When you tell your grand-kidlets about Phelps, I guarantee that's the moment you're going to lead with. It was the confirmation of his greatness—a slice of cosmic grace that went beyond sheer dominance.
The win was Phelps' seventh of the Beijing Games, tying him with Mark Spitz for the most gold medals won at a single Olympiad.