Thanks for the memories, Mike
Phelps ends career with 23rd gold medal, but insists his work with the sport is not done
Legend: His fiancee Nicole and son Boomer have cheered him on in Rio. PHOTO: REUTERS
Michael Phelps reflected on a fairy-tale conclusion to a dream career after claiming his 23rd Olympic gold in Rio in his final race yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The 31-year-old American won the 4x100 metres medley relay with Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian, extending his record as the most decorated Olympian of all time to 28 medals.
"This accomplishment, I can't wrap my head around," Phelps said.
"It's insane. I honestly don't know when I will.
"This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming and try to do something nobody in the sport has ever done.
"And it turned out pretty cool.
"I've lived a dream come true, something that I wanted for so long.
"Being able to cap it off with these Games is just the perfect way to finish."
It could have all ended four years ago, in a little less cool fashion, for the Baltimore Bullet.
After the 2012 London Olympics, which he had declared would be his last, Phelps walked away with not only the regret that he had simply gone through the motions but, like many athletes in retirement, he appeared lost and unprepared.
He talked of becoming a professional golfer, but eventually found himself testing the waters of a swimming comeback and, despite some missteps with a drink-driving conviction that led to rehabilitation and a suspension, made his fifth Olympic team.
In Rio, where he took his Olympic tally to a staggering 28 medals - he also won three silvers and two bronzes - it was apparent he was not going through the motions at all.
Clearly exhausted, he shared every victory with the raucous crowd and was especially emotional whenever he caught sight of fiancee Nicole and infant son Boomer in the stands.
"Really, just walking into the pool tonight, I think everything just really started coming out.
"My emotions started surfacing.
"Walking down the warm-up pool deck, I started to get choked up, just thinking, 'That's it'.
"Definitely a lot more emotional than I was in 2012, and I think that's a good thing.
"Being able to look back on my career and being able to say I've been able to accomplish everything I wanted. It was a challenge getting back to this point.
"This is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted, and I couldn't be happier with how things ended."
Phelps, who won five gold medals in Rio, has no regrets over his career and says his emotions this time and contentedness mean he will not be performing a retirement U-turn, like he did after the London 2012 Olympics.
He added: "I wouldn't change anything. This is the best place I've ever been in my life, with an amazing family.
"I'm pretty much happy most of the time. Sometimes I get grouchy if I'm hungry... I wouldn't change anything about my past."
The winner of six gold medals at Athens 2004, eight at Beijing 2008 and four at London 2012 was unable to select any particular highlight.
"I honestly don't know," he said.
"Every one (Olympics) is special in a way and every medal is special in a way.
"I don't even know if I could pick one, because this is just a part of my entire career.
"You could say (Rio) was special, because I'm able to start the next chapter of my life.
"I am retiring, but I'm not done with swimming. This is just the start of something new."
Part of that new chapter, having stated numerous times he would not be competing in Tokyo in 2020, now clearly lies outside the pool.
Since he first took the Olympic plunge at the 2000 Sydney Games, Phelps has had an ambition to take swimming into the mainstream.
And there is no doubt the sport has enjoyed a much higher profile during his tenure as its leading figure.
It is also apparent, however, that he has not been able to elevate it much beyond what it has been - something people only care about during Olympic years.
So, he knows he has work to do.
"I've said this to some of you, it's not done growing," he told reporters when he qualified for Rio.
"In my opinion, and if I have to die before (then) - I'll go down swinging to see this sport where I want it to be.
"I said when I was 15 years old, I want to change the sport of swimming. Yeah, I've done a lot, but it's not done."
Phelps' lifelong sporting hero is basketball star Michael Jordan, whose jersey number was 23.
"I was thinking about that today," added Phelps, who now intends to spend more time with fiancee Nicole and newborn son Boomer.
"Watching him in the sport of basketball has been an inspiration for me in the sport of swimming.
"Twenty-three is a special number, always has been.
"Now will be even more special."
- Wire Services.
I said when I was 15 years old, I want to change the sport of swimming. Yeah, I’ve done a lot, but it’s not done.
— Michael Phelps