RIO DE JANEIRO — He was a rambunctious child, his kindergarten teacher sending home notes to his mother describing his inability to complete tasks. Debbie Phelps thought swimming could be an outlet for his boundless energy, so when her only son was five she signed him up for lessons at a Baltimore swim club.
He hated the water. He’d tell the swim teachers his stomach hurt or he had a headache or that his ear was throbbing—anything to stay out of the pool. And when he finally did jump in, he despised getting his face wet. So he began his career by floating on his back.
But soon the boy grew comfortable in the water—the lane markers provided the structure his wandering mind needed. By age seven the child who would be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder was gliding through the water like a little human speedboat. He had found his gift.
It’s instructive to remember the beginning when the end arrives. On Saturday night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, at just past 11 p.m. local time, the greatest swimmer in the history of humankind walked onto the pool deck for the last competitive race of his career. As soon as Michael Phelps appeared, it was like Caesar had entered the Coliseum, the way the stadium crowd shrieked and screamed and did everything but throw rose petals.
Phelps was swimming the butterfly leg on Team USA’s 4x100-meter medley relay team—an event the Americans had not lost in the Olympics. This was it, Phelps had sworn 24 hours earlier, the end of his legendary career, which before Saturday night included a record 22 gold medals and 27 overall.
“I will be in Tokyo [in 2020] but I won’t be competing,” Phelps said. “This is it. This is final. If I had [retirement] papers, I’d sign them.”
Phelps, 31 and a veteran of five Olympics, is a family man now. His son, Boomer Robert, was born in May, and he’s been in the stands sleeping his way through his daddy’s epic run in Rio. Little Boomer has been in the arms of mother Nicole Johnson, the former Miss California beauty queen Phelps plans to marry later this year. This week Phelps has talked longingly of an extended vacation and spending quality time with his son and soon-to-be bride. The rest of his life awaits.
But others believe—firmly—that Phelps will be back in the pool in Tokyo at the age of 35. Remember: Phelps retired after the London Olympics in 2012 only to return, the lure of the starting blocks—and the seduction of gold—still too strong.
“I said in 2012 he’d come back, and I believe he’ll come back for Tokyo,” said Ryan Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist. “He’s found a different purpose in his life with his family, but I think he’ll come back. He wants to push the limits and see how far he can go … Team USA needs him. He’s the backbone of the team.”
“We all look to Michael as our leader,” said Katie Ledecky, who set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle and won four gold medals in Rio. “I don’t think anyone will ever carry the torch like Michael has for the last 16 years.”
The American flag bearer at the opening ceremony, Phelps had been his old freakishly dominant self in Rio. He won a gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, gold in the 200-meter butterfly (a victory that made him the oldest individual champion in Olympic swimming history), gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, gold in the 200-meter individual medley and silver in the 100-meter butterfly.
Even Phelps’ longtime rivals remarked—often in disbelief—that he was still the best in the world, still the Greek god of the modern Olympiad.
And yet late on Saturday night, Phelps looked like a man who was done with competitive swimming. After diving into the pool for the third leg of the relay—Phelps began in second behind Great Britain and finished in first—he intently watched Nathan Adrian pull away to deliver Team USA the gold medal in an Olympic-record time of three minutes, 27.95 seconds, beating Great Britain by 1.29 seconds.
After his 23rd time atop the podium and watching Old Glory rise a final time with wet eyes, Phelps took a slow victory lap around the pool with his teammates. The five-time gold-medal winner in Rio pointed at his suddenly awake son, who was swaddled in red, white and blue, and his fiancee, who was a puddle of tears. Phelps’ eyes lingered on them—10 seconds, 20—as if he was trying to freeze the moment and carve it into his memory.
He continued to walk and wave to the Americans, the Brazilians, the Australians, everyone in the crowd who had stuck around for nearly an hour after the race to salute Phelps. These were his true believers.
The end was near. He grabbed an American flag from a fan in the stands and stretched it out with his two hands as he neared the portal that would lead him out of the stadium. He flashed a radiant smile. He was aglow.
He was close now. He raised his arms in the air and mouthed “thank you” over and over and over—the swimmer’s final goodbye, at least for now.
He glanced at the pool once last time, and then Michael Phelps—the boy who used to try to talk his way out of swimming lessons—disappeared into the cool Brazilian night.
The legend was gone.