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Michael Phelps' closing act

Michael Phelps has pushed his career record for gold medals to a point even he never thought possible.

In his younger days, Michael Phelps pushed down his emotions each time he heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” after winning an Olympic gold medal.

But at these 2016 Games, which Phelps swears will be his last, he has allowed his feelings and memories from his five Olympics to wash over him each time he climbs the medal stand. He's shared tears and laughter with the world.

“It's wild to think that over 20 years ago I learned to swim, and I'll be stopping, competition-wise, in the next 48 hours,” he said after his resounding win in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday. “It's crazy to think about some of that stuff, but it's also cool, because I've been able to do everything I ever wanted, and it all started just as a kid who wasn't afraid.”

Going into the Olympics, Phelps said he wanted to create a satisfying ending to his career before moving on to the rest of his life. He has done that, pushing his career record for gold medals to 22 heading into his final race Saturday and doing so with a joy he could not find four years ago in London.

With his performance in these games — four golds and a silver with a relay race left Saturday — he was already hearing the question he'll be asked over the next four years: Why stop now?

“I've actually said those words to him, and hopefully he didn't hear me,” said his coach of 20 years, Bob Bowman. “I just don't see it happening. He's in such a good place personally that he doesn't need it. At some point it's just other people need to step up.”

If this is the end for Phelps the swimmer — he said again Friday night after the 100 butterfly he was retiring and reiterated it on a Facebook chat Saturday  — he's going out in style. With his 200 IM victory Thursday, he became the first swimmer and third male athlete — after Al Oerter in the discus and Carl Lewis in the long jump — to win the same event four Olympics in a row. In a nod to history, Phelps also became the winningest individual gold medalist of all time, breaking the 2,000-plus-year record of Leonidas of Rhodes, who won his last races in 152 B.C.

“Nothing surprises me anymore with that guy,” said his friend and in-pool antagonist, Ryan Lochte. “He's a phenom. It's unbelievable.”

From the charge he threw into the U.S. team with his relay leg on the second night of competition to his takedown of young rival Chad le Clos to his two-second win in the 200 IM, Phelps, 31, has been about as good as he ever was — but not perfect. Friday night's silver medal in the 100 butterfly was the first time in four Olympics he's lost that event.

Since he was a teenager in Rodgers Forge, Phelps has said he wanted to leave his sport fundamentally changed. This past week in Rio has demonstrated his stature among Olympic swimmers.

Fellow athletes selected him to carry the American flag into the opening ceremony, just the second swimmer to do so.

He set off an international discussion about the medical legitimacy of cupping therapy after viewers noticed the round, purple bruises on his back and shoulders.

The competitive fury he flashed at le Clos became an internet sensation, fueled by the release of an emoji figure from Phelps' own app.

He helped frame the increasingly harsh public assessment of doping enforcement in the Olympics, saying, “I wish somebody would do something about it.”

What lies ahead

As Phelps looks ahead to a life beyond competition, he has already talked with his agent, Peter Carlisle, about ways to continue increasing the sport's footprint. He hasn't said exactly what he has in mind, but he will likely continue promoting water safety for kids and expanding the MP brand of swimwear he helped design with Bowman.

He has also said he will assist Bowman in coaching the Arizona State swim team.

Marketing analysts see a long future for him as a pitchman, especially if he avoids mistakes like his 2014 arrest for drunken driving.

“As the Olympics' [greatest of all time] and an iconic figure who transcends sports, Phelps should be a marketable commodity well into retirement — assuming he avoids future transgressions during all that extra free time he'll have,” said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

He will likely have many options, Dorfman said, from continuing as an ambassador for Under Armour to serving as a swimming commentator for NBC to becoming an endorser of family-oriented products such as cars, healthy foods and anything related to water.

But when close friends talk about Phelps' future and the likelihood of him finding happiness away from swimming, they point to his fiancee Nicole Johnson and their 3-month-old son, Boomer.

“I mean, he has a lot to look forward to,” said longtime training partner Allison Schmitt, who has lived with Phelps and Johnson in Arizona for the past year. “I think he and Nicole both do, with Boomer, raising that family and getting married this upcoming year. I'm excited to watch this all happen and I'm honored to be able to stand by their side as they exchange vows.”

Schmitt and Phelps consoled one another through dark times — his period of painful self-examination after the drunken-driving arrest and her struggles with depression. They also passed many a morning belting out country tunes as they drove to Bowman's practices.

But as she watched her friend celebrate his victory in the 200-meter butterfly, climbing into the stands to kiss Johnson and hold Boomer, Schmitt noticed something new.

“The smile on his face said it all,” she recalled. “You could just tell how much pride he had in himself and the journey that he's been on. I said to him, ‘Wow, that was a very genuine smile. I don't think I've ever seen you that happy.'”

Bowman mentioned another scene in describing how the world around Phelps has transformed. The coach walked out Wednesday to watch Schmitt swim in the 4x200-meter relay and noticed Johnson and Boomer nearby. He sat with them, cradling Boomer and urging him to watch his “Aunt Schmitty.”

In that moment, it hit him — this was the domestic tranquillity that lay ahead for Phelps.

One more time

Four years ago, Bowman and Phelps thought they were done. But Phelps came out of retirement because he didn't want that tumultuous time to be his last memory of swimming.

He knew he would have to embrace physical tortures he'd skirted for years to get back to his form of 2004 and 2008. He doubted himself along the way.

“What the hell am I doing back swimming again?” he thought at one particularly poor meet in Charlotte. “I'm swimming so slow.”

But he needed to do it one more time, and he trusted Bowman to get him there. In his desire to push forward, he felt like a kid again.

“That was the real difference,” Phelps said.

The final product has left Phelps and those closest to him in awe at the number of medals he's accumulated —27 total and 22 gold heading into Saturday night.

“You just have no idea how difficult it is for anybody to win an Olympic gold medal,” said Bowman, who's the U.S. men's head coach for the Rio Games. “Michael's done it so frequently that it's hard to even put it in perspective. Because every one of those was hard.”

There are practical reasons for Phelps to walk away now. As easy as he's made these Olympics look, his body does not spring back from races the way it did when he was 19 or 23. That was evident in the 100 butterfly Friday night, in which he tied for second.

“Man, how did we do all those events in 2008?” he joked to Lochte during the week.

“My body is in pain,” he said after he swam three races on Thursday. “My legs are hurting. I'm tired.”

But more than any other factor, Phelps seems genuinely pleased with the final story he's written in Rio.

Because he came out of retirement before and because he's often struggled to find a purpose away from the pool, many will doubt his intentions.

Lochte guaranteed on NBC's “Today” show that Phelps will be in the pool at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. He made the same prediction four years ago and was correct.

Even Phelps' mom, Debbie, got in on the act, telling NBC a Tokyo comeback “would be wonderful.”

Phelps seemed to leave wiggle room before competition began, calling the 2016 Games his “potential” last Olympics.

Since then, however, he's checked off special moments one by one.

“It started hitting me this morning,” he said Thursday. “I only have to put a racing suit on two more times. I only have to warm down one more time. Those little, tiny things I've been saying to Bob every day.”

After his final individual race — a silver-medal finish in Friday's 100-meter butterfly — a grinning Phelps said Lochte was wrong and added that he'd be in Tokyo with his mother, but as a spectator.

“I'm ready to retire,” he said. “And I'm happy about it.”

Even when you're painting a masterpiece, eventually you have to stop.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

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