RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps closed his career with a gold medal in a brilliant race, a 4x100m medley relay where his butterfly leg turned a half-second American deficit into a half-second American lead. He called the win "the cherry on the cake" of his career, a 23rd gold to further cement his status as the greatest of all time.
And as he leaves his final press conference from his final race, he gives one final statement to put a capstone on the greatest career swimming has ever known.
"I’m so hungry," he says. The most decorated champion in Olympic history rubs his belly, and he exits stage right, never to swim again.
After over a decade of unmatched achievements, Phelps has made it quite clear in the past few days that he is ready for the mundane. There is not a question he can’t answer without referencing his fiancée Nicole and his son Boomer, and his eagerness to be husband and a dad rather than a swimmer who happens to be married with a kid.
Whether Phelps is ready for life without swimming remains unknown. We’ve already seen Phelps try to retire, only to realize his body and mind and lifestyle were not what he wanted without swimming. He found himself drawn back to the pool, and that’s why we got to watch him win five more gold medals here in Rio.
Just think about his grumbling stomach at the end of the press conference. This dude has spent two decades eating 12,000 calories a day to sustain a training regimen and metabolism that defy human comprehension. What does Michael Phelps even eat from here on out?
So even though Phelps has peppered the press with repetitions of his desire to retire, the question is raised: Is Phelps really done?
It is absolutely ridiculous to think Michael Phelps might swim in 2020 at the Tokyo Olympics. It’s simply not likely that a swimmer of Phelps’ age can persist for another four years.
In Rio, Phelps became the first man to win individual gold at Olympics 12 years apart and the oldest man to win Olympic gold. (The latter record was eclipsed by Anthony Ervin.) Four years from now, Phelps will be four years older than he was when he became the oldest man to win Olympic gold. Four years is a monumental amount of time for a swimmer.
Phelps has lasted eons past his should-be expiration date. How can we think it’s possible for Michael Phelps to keep going?
There’s a simple answer: He is Michael Phelps, and everything about his career has been impossible. Twenty-eight medals is impossible. Twenty-three gold medals is impossible. Dominant swims at 31 are impossible. But he's done them all.
"It's not a once-in-a-generation thing," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach. "It might be once in 10 generations that somebody like Michael Phelps comes along."
We don’t knock Jordan for being kinda utterly whelming with the Wizards; we celebrated Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter through prolonged sub-par performances with their retirement nearing. And Phelps similarly could’ve come back to the pool in Rio and underwhelmed, and we’d still remember him as the greatest his sport has ever seen.
Instead, Phelps looked as dominant as ever. We saw him gaining momentum in the final strokes of the 200m individual medley while the rest of the world tired out. We saw him win team golds by carrying younger, spryer swimmers on relay teams. In a career of superhuman feats, Phelps’ performances in the pool in Rio were as superhuman as anything we’ve seen, and that’s why we wonder if we might see even more impossibility from him.
But Phelps insists he feels a sense of completeness. He said he’d set out to change the world of swimming, and although Phelps is still here, the events of the last week make it clear he has. With seemingly every gold medalist, a new old picture of Phelps emerges. We’ve seen the picture of Phelps with a 9-year-old Katie Ledecky, beaming at the opportunity to meet him. Phelps also took a picture with a 13-year-old Joseph Schooling, and recounted the experience Friday night after Schooling beat him in the 100m butterfly for the first gold medal in Singapore’s history. Phelps also said there’s a picture of him floating around with a 9-year-old Ryan Murphy, who came to see Phelps in 2004. The current great swimmers of the world grew up watching Michael Phelps, and Phelps seems to feel that validate his career goals.
Phelps says that he feels happy pretty much all the time nowadays. The implication is that he will be at peace with his upcoming retirement.
But he adds a caveat: He can get a little bit grouchy when he gets hungry.