On the first day of the rest of his life, Michael Phelps slept in. Really in.
"I just woke up," he told reporters at a 1 p.m. news conference Sunday, the day after he swam his last race ever to complete a 22-medal run over four Olympics.
After spending much of his life seeing almost nothing but "the black line at the bottom of the pool," Phelps seemed ready to make up for lost time. He's been here for about two weeks, for example, but just now had seen Big Ben and the Parliament as he was driven to the event, organized by one of his sponsors, Visa.
Phelps, 27, retired from competitive swimming after winning his 18th gold medal Saturday night in the 4x100-meter individual medley, the last race of the swimming competition. It was an emotional week for him, one that began in defeat but ultimately saw him become the most decorated Olympian ever.
Still, he is not leaving swimming entirely behind, and on Sunday, it still was at the forefront of his mind as he reflected on his extraordinary career.
Surprisingly, his favorite medal came first. And as for the ones that got away, the one he regrets the most came just this past week.
"There have been so many amazing races," Phelps said. "The best [medal] was probably my first one back in 2004, being able to win the first gold medal on the very first day of swimming, the 400[-meter individual medley]. It showed that hard work does pay off.
"The one I hated to lose the most probably was the 200 fly here," he said of coming in second to South African swimmer Chad le Clos. "... If i could go back and swim that again, I would love to."
But very quickly, Phelps said he will not seek a do-over on that, or any other race. He really is done with competing, he said, although he also has gone back on other definitive declarations in the past. Phelps had sworn off the 400 IM after Beijing, for example, but returned the event to his program in London.
That was a do-over, in a sense, after his rival Ryan Lochte won the race in the world championships in Shanghai in 4:07.13 minutes.
"After seeing the results from Shanghai last year, I thought I could swim faster than that," Phelps said. "Clearly I was wrong."
In London, Lochte won the gold medal in the event, swimming "perfectly," Phelps said, while the Baltimore swimmer came in fourth.
Phelps said he will stay involved in the sport. He will keep working to elevate it — which he certainly achieved by drawing more attention to it and raising the bar on the level of competition — from dry land now.
"My competitive part of my career is over," he said. "But it doesn't mean I'm done with the sport."
Phelps said he's looking forward to watching the progress of the younger swimmers for whom London was something of a coming-out party: His training partner at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Allison Schmitt, 22, who medaled in all five of her races, including the 4x100 medley relay that she anchored Saturday night to her third gold, and new world record; Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old who returns to her Colorado high school with five medals as well; Katie Ledecky, the 15-year-old from Bethesda who almost broke a world record en route to a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle.
"We have a great team right now that people are excited about," he said.
The U.S. won 30 medals in London, a haul that included several breakout performances by Franklin, Schmitt and other swimmers even as Phelps drew much of the spotlight as he bade farewell to the sport. His teammates say that he was much more of a presence on the team this year, mentoring the young swimmers who at least initially were in awe of being in the same pool.
“I actually remember the first time I met Michael,” Franklin said Saturday night, remembering how she saw him at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs when she was 13 years old.
“I was definitely in awe. I was completely, like, Michael Phelps is right in front of me. And now, it's just like, ‘Oh, there's Michael,'” Franklin said as members of the Japanese relay team that had won bronze giggled as they listened to a simultaneous translation at a news conference. “I don't think his shoes will ever be filled. I think his footsteps are just huge, and hopefully I can just make little paths right next to his.”
Schmitt, whom Phelps credits with helping him enjoy swimming again, said that she often looked forward more to Phelps' races than her own.
“He's such a dedicated athlete. It's so inspiring watching him swim," said Schmitt, who spent much of Saturday with Phelps, practicing in the morning, eating breakfast and lunch together and staying relaxed for the big night. “I literally was jumping over the stands watching him swim.”
Phelps said he thinks he can move on, having done all he wanted to do as a competitor.
"I've been able to do a lot of firsts, and that's something I'm proud of," he said.
He became the most decorated Olympian after winning his 19th medal, a gold, anchoring the 4x200-meter relay Tuesday. On Thursday, he became the first male swimmer to win gold in the same event in three Olympics, in his case, the 200 IM. The next day, he did it again in the 100 fly.
"This is a very special Olympics," Phelps said. "The moments are just priceless."
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