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Olympics

Column: Michael Phelps follows the GOAT path until the finish

400 IM relay team
The U.S. men’s 400-meter medley relay team -- (from left) Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller, Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian -- listen to the national anthem after winning gold on Saturday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He left it all in the pool, every inch of his lean and bruised body, every dazzling and dark moment of his career, all swirling behind him in the roiling waters of the Olympic Aquatics Center.

He bent down over the deck in exhaustion. He stayed down, staring at the blue floor, basking, breathing, until he finally found the strength to straighten, thrust up his arms and wave his hands in a universal gesture of goodbye.

Thousands of fans wearing a dizzying diversity of colors and flapping many-hued flags stood for the guy wearing the red, white and blue.

And soon thereafter, in accents and tongues from all over the globe, they chanted his name.

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“Mich-ael Phelps! Mich-ael Phelps!”

On a thick-throated Saturday night in Rio, the air was filled with the sort of singular appreciation never heard from an entire Olympics crowd.

For one moment, it felt as if the entire sporting world was putting aside its differences to say farewell to the greatest.

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever, now and forever, and the final race of his five Olympics was filled with the richness of what exactly that means.

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It means a record 23 gold medals, and a record 28 overall, after his butterfly leg pushed the U.S. men’s team to a victory in the 400-meter medley relay.

It means six medals, five of them gold, in these Games at age 31. Six medals four years after he retired the first time. Six medals that make him the most decorated athlete at four consecutive Olympics. Think about that.

“It’s just insane, it’s mind-blowing,” Phelps said this week, and both phrases are insane understatements.

He is Peyton Manning, but only if Manning had been the MVP of that last Super Bowl.

He is Kobe Bryant, but only if Bryant had scored those final 60 points in an NBA Finals Game 7.

He is Barry Bonds, but clean. He is Tiger Woods, with redemption.

On Saturday, swimming the third leg of a relay he once again rescued, the retiring-for-sure star was all of those things, even when standing on the podium for the final time.

As the national anthem played, he fought back tears while swaying to a song he has heard so many times. He and his three teammates — Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy and Cody Miller — then initially held up a sign that carried no boasting words or record numbers. “Thank you Rio,” it read simply.

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“This is a cherry on top of the cake that I wanted,” Phelps said afterward, looking drained but happy.

The greatest Olympian has had quite a visit here. He has not only dominated in water, but thrilled on dry land, his lanky, muscular, perpetually-messy-black-hair aura floating everywhere.

He carried the American flag in the opening ceremony. He delivered a death stare in the warmup room. He wagged his fingers dismissively. He held up both outstretched hands challengingly.

He was cupped, leaving huge bruises. He was cheered, uniting huge crowds. He laughed on the podium, he cried on the podium, all during the same song.

He hugged his teammates, his opponents, his mom Debbie, his fiancee Nicole Johnson, his baby Boomer, and, let’s face it, he’s pretty much embraced everyone who has been watching him for 64 Olympic races covering nearly seven miles over 16 years.

“He is the greatest of all time, he’s the GOAT, and he’s still so good,” proclaimed teammate Anthony Ervin.

Still don’t believe it? The four Olympians ranking second on the all-time gold medal list — gymnast Larisa Latynina, track athletes Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi and swimmer Mark Spitz — won fewer than half as many gold medals as Phelps, with nine each. Meanwhile, Latynina ranks second overall with 18 total medals, or 10 fewer than Phelps.

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After a week here, it seems like he’s only getting better, and how is that possible?

“I’ve grown up watching Michael, he’s been the greatest swimmer as long as I can remember, but it’s so incredible to watch it in person,” said U.S. swimmer Maya DiRado, who then described watching him race her teammates. “We sat and looked at each other like, how? We know he’s the greatest and we know it’s been decided but he just keeps doing it.”

Fittingly, the most poignant image of Phelps’ career this week was a grainy one from his past. There was a photo circulating that showed swimming star Katie Ledecky posing with Phelps after receiving an autograph — when she was 9 years old.

Phelps said he came out of retirement after the 2012 Games in London for kids like Joseph Schooling.

“I wanted to change the sport of swimming, daring kids to dream,” Phelps said. “I was a little kid with a dream and it turned into a couple of medals. . . . Not to be afraid to know that the sky is the limit.”

He also came back to work for himself, to refocus a life that had slipped to the fringes, to divert him from a path that, even after his comeback began, veered into trouble. Phelps entered these Olympics with a resume that included two DUI offenses, two USA Swimming suspensions, and a renowned photo of him with a bong. It also included a 45-day stay in a residential treatment facility, after which he returned to the water renewed.

“I’m happy with how things have finished, that’s why I came back,” he said. “I didn’t want to have a ‘what if’ 20 years later. Being able to close the door on this sport the way I want to, that’s why I’m happy.”

That door closed Saturday night with a splash that rained on the sporting world, a door creaking but strong, a door covered forever in gold.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke


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