Two decades ago, Bob Bowman pitched Debbie Phelps on a fantastic vision for her 11-year-old son. The swimming coach saw Olympic medals, world records, even history in the scrawny boy’s future. The mother thought Bowman was crazy.
But the long-ago vision turned out to be conservative.
Michael Phelps revolutionized swimming during the last 13 years with a flurry of medals, records and, yes, history that seemed to come so easily. He became the face of the sport, then transcended it. And the most decorated Olympian of all time bid farewell to swimming Saturday as only he could.
In the 31-year-old’s final race before retirement, he led the U.S. to victory in the 400-meter medley relay as the flag-waving crowd thundered at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.
Phelps put an exclamation point on a career that spanned five Olympics and included 28 medals, 23 of them gold. No other athlete in any sport has more than nine gold medals.
This is the ending Phelps wanted. After the London Olympics four years ago, he retired, bitterly disappointed with his effort and burned out. He returned 18 months later. The lure of finishing the medal-laden career on his terms was too much to resist.
But the extent of his success at these Games surprised even the ultra-competitive Phelps. He captured five gold medals and one silver. That included winning his fourth consecutive gold in the 200-meter individual medley to go along with another gold in the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps looked like the same world-beating swimmer who holds three individual world records, only this time more at ease, more comfortable with himself, more able to savor the moment.
At times during the last week, Phelps shook his head in disbelief at the stream of victories. He laughed on the medal stand. He kissed his fiancee Nicole Johnson and their snoozing infant son Boomer in the stands after collecting medals. Phelps even shed tears during some of the medal ceremonies.
“I think these Games really showed that growth,” said Anthony Ervin, who became the oldest individual gold medalist in Olympic swimming history when he won the 50-meter freestyle Friday. “That human spirit. His capacity to heal. I think that showed in his swimming, that showed in his demeanor.”
During the past year, Phelps frequently discussed changes in his personal life that allowed him to feel unburdened, even at peace and gave him a newfound ability to enjoy life. He looked the part in and out of the pool.
Phelps is more aware of his place in history, too, with feats that inspired a generation of swimmers. In fact, he embraces it. 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.
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.
“This is over. This is it. Tonight’s the last one,” Phelps said Saturday during a Facebook Live broadcast to about 65,000 viewers a few hours before the final race.
In the background, a few of his teammates chanted, “Four more years!” Phelps’ performance Saturday provided a final example of why they don’t want him to leave.
Ryan Murphy (backstroke), Cody Miller (breaststroke) and Nathan Adrian (freestyle) joined Phelps on the relay that finished in 3 minutes 27.95 seconds. Phelps dived into the pool on the third leg as the U.S. trailed by .61 seconds. He blazed through his 100 meters of butterfly to put the relay in front by almost a half-second.
Phelps thrust his arms skyward after the victory, dripping wet as cheers rained down.
Simone Manuel, another breakout star on the U.S. team, joined the celebration Saturday. After finishing second in the 50-meter freestyle, the 20-year-old anchored the women’s 400-meter medley relay. Her blazing leg helped the U.S. to the win — and added a gold medal to go along with the one she won in the 100-meter freestyle.
“I mean, fighting out there with three other women is the greatest honor that you could ever have,” said Manuel, the first black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming at the Olympics.
But the night belonged to Phelps one last time.
“It’s insane,” he said. “This all started and began with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming and to do something that nobody else has ever done and it turned out pretty cool. ... I’ve lived a dream come true.”
Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno