Michael Phelps Ends Olympic Career With 22 Medals, 18 Of Them Gold
The Olympic career of Michael Phelps came to an end yesterday in London with a win in the 4×100 medley relay and, appropriately, it ended with another Gold Medal:
LONDON — One by one, his rivals formed a handshake line behind the blocks at London Aquatics Centre and paid homage to Michael Phelps, the lord of the Olympic rings. In his racing finale on Saturday night, as a member of the United States men’s 4×100-meter medley relay, Phelps collected his 22nd medal, and 18th gold.
Before Phelps retired, he had one last trophy to collect: a statuette that recognized his place in Olympic history and resembled a crinkled piece of aluminum foil from a foot-long sandwich.
“It’s kind of weird looking at this and seeing ‘Greatest Olympian of All Time,’ ” Phelps said, adding: “I finished my career the way I wanted to. I think that’s pretty cool.”
It sounds ludicrous now, but when Phelps, now 27, began his journey toward becoming the Tiger Woods of swimming, he had no clue what Mark Spitz had done. Unlike Woods — who kept a tally, like a to-do list, that included Jack Nicklaus’s feats — Phelps was looking to the future when he put together the most ambitious Olympic program in the history of his sport.
Before becoming the first swimmer to race in eight Olympic events at the 2004 Games, Phelps was fuzzy on the details of Spitz’s career. It was left to his coach, Bob Bowman, to fill him in on Spitz’s seven-gold-medal performance at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Similarly, Phelps said that until recently, he did not know about the gymnast Larisa Latynina, who reigned for nearly five decades as the most decorated Olympian, with 18 medals.
Some architects of history work from a blueprint, while others, like Phelps, do not want to acknowledge any ceiling. Phelps transformed swimming, inspiring a generation at home and abroad, by building an audacious program out of grit, guts and a burning desire to make swimming cool for children all over the world.
“I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level,” Phelps said.
On Saturday, Phelps followed Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen in the medley relay, and 50.73 seconds later, he gave the anchor, Nathan Adrian, a lead that Adrian turned into a runaway victory over Japan and Australia.
The drama was in the details: the two cameras set up on either side of Phelps as he stepped to the blocks for his butterfly leg; the hugs with his teammates after the race; the tear-stained face of his mother, who stood with all the other fans applauding; and this conversation at the warm-up pool before the race, with Bowman, the Sherpa who took him to the sporting summit: “My tears are hidden behind goggles,” Phelps told him. ”Yours are streaming down your face.”
Phelps’s 22 medals are a mind-boggling total. If he were a country, he would rank in the top 60 in modern Olympic history. His 18 golds would put him No. 36, just ahead of Argentina.
Whether one considers him the greatest Olympic athlete ever or not, there’s no question that he’s the greatest Olympic swimmer and that he’s set marks both in the record books and in the medal count that are going to stand for quite some time. Beyond Phelps, though, the U.S. swimming program seems to be better than ever. The men’s team is full of stars on the rise, and the women have people like 17 year old Missy Franklin, who won four Gold Medals this time around, and 15 year old Katie Ledecky, who swam an amazing 800m freestyle that broke an American record that had stood for eight years before she was even born. Both of these, and more, will likely be back for Rio and 2016 and for the 2020 Olympics. There’s not going to be another Michael Phelps, though, for quite a long time. Well done.