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The 2016 Rio Olympics have come to a close with Americans earning 121 medals -- 46 gold, 37 silver and 38 bronze -- their biggest haul ever, not counting the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games or the 1904 St. Louis Games, when hardly anyone else showed up.

Michael Phelps ends record-breaking career with 23rd Olympic gold medal

American swimmer Michael Phelps, center, celebrates with teammates after winning gold in the men's 400-meter medley relay on Saturday. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
American swimmer Michael Phelps, center, celebrates with teammates after winning gold in the men's 400-meter medley relay on Saturday. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Even Michael Phelps couldn’t imagine an ending this good.

In his final race before retirement, the most decorated Olympian in history led the U.S. to victory in the 400-meter medley relay at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Saturday.

Phelps finished a career that spanned five Olympics with 28 medals, 23 of them gold. No other athlete in any sport has more than nine gold medals.

Ryan Murphy (backstroke), Cody Miller (breaststroke) and Nathan Adrian (freestyle) joined Phelps on the relay that finished in 3 minutes 27.95 seconds. Phelps dove into the pool on the third leg as the U.S. tailed by .61 seconds. He touched the wall after his 100 meters of butterfly with the relay ahead by almost a half-second.

Phelps retired following the London Olympics -- disappointed with his performance and tired of the sport -- but returned 18 months later in search of a better ending to more than two decades in the pool.

The comeback produced more success than the 31-year-old expected. Phelps captured five gold medals and one silver at these Games, including his fourth consecutive Olympic gold in the 200-meter individual medley and another gold in the 200-meter butterfly.

Phelps looked like the same dominant swimmer who holds three individual world records and revolutionized the sport, only more at ease, comfortable with himself and able to enjoy the moment. At times during the last week, Phelps shook his head in disbelief at the stream of victories. He repeatedly laughed, kissed his son, Boomer, after races and shed tears during some medal ceremonies.

Phelps is more aware of his place in history, too. His feats in the pool inspired a generation of young swimmers. Some of his teammates on this edition of the U.S. Olympic swimming team grew up seeking his autograph or decorated their bedroom walls with his picture. Katie Ledecky, the 19-year-old sensation who won four gold medals at these Games, posed for a photograph with Phelps and got his autograph when she was 9.

The success in Rio de Janeiro fueled speculation that Phelps would relent on retirement once again and return for the Tokyo Olympics in four years. Ryan Lochte, his longtime rival and friend, repeatedly predicted during the past week. Phelps’ mother, Debbie, and fiancee, Nicole Johnson, both floated the possibility, too.

But Phelps has remained adamant that his days in the pool are finished.

“This is over. This is it. Tonight’s the last one,” Phelps said earlier Saturday during a Facebook Live broadcast.

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