Michael Phelps led a golden year for Maryland athletes at the Olympics

Phelps had traveled to Rio de Janeiro to produce an immaculate ending to his unparalleled Olympic career. But in truth, he had not performed to his own immense expectations for much of his 2 1/2-year comeback. And some observers questioned whether the American men would even win a medal in this fiercely competitive main event of the second night of Olympic swimming.


They trailed the French as Phelps knifed into the water for the first of his six events in Rio. The greatest swimmer of all time quickly stalked the lead as the Olympic Aquatics Stadium throbbed around him. And then with one mighty turn — the best of his career according to his longtime coach, Bob Bowman — Phelps surged in front by half a body length. The Americans never trailed again.

Perhaps we were fools to doubt Phelps, who'd mustered such performances routinely in his 16 years on the Olympic stage. His relay swim lifted the curtain on a week in which the 31-year-old would push his career totals to a preposterous 23 gold medals (no other athlete in modern history has more than nine) and 28 medals overall.

"It's been a dream-come-true week," he said when it was all over and he wore his 23rd gold medal around his neck. "And this was the cherry on the cake that I wanted."

Marylanders have grown used to relying on Phelps for a medal fix every four years, but he was only part of the state's story in Rio.

The night before Phelps began what he says will be his last golden run, his North Baltimore Aquatic Club protege, Chase Kalisz, won silver in the 400-meter individual medley.

Phelps' successor as the most dominant swimmer in the world, Katie Ledecky, is from Bethesda. She won four gold medals and crushed two world records in Rio.

Beyond the pool, both gold-medal basketball teams featured players from Baltimore — Angel McCoughtry picking up her second gold medal for the U.S. women and Carmelo Anthony winning his record third for the U.S. men.

Second-generation Olympian Matthew Centrowitz — a former Sun Athlete of the Year at Broadneck High — held off several more touted runners to win gold at 1,500 meters on the last night of track and field competition.


Then Kyle Snyder of Woodbine, fresh off his sophomore year at Ohio State, sealed his rise as the nation's leading wrestling prodigy with a gold-medal victory in the 97-kg freestyle class.

In all, athletes with Maryland connections won more gold medals than all but five countries.

And that was before the Paralympians swept into Brazil a few weeks later.

U.S. wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden of Clarksville earned her second gold medal of the Rio Paralympics with a win in the women's 1,500-meter T54.

Led by Tatyana McFadden, the most dominant Paralympic athlete in the world, the Maryland contingent again cleaned up.

McFadden, a graduate of Atholton, won four gold medals. Swimmer Jessica Long, who trains at NBAC, won six overall medals. Teammate Becca Meyers, a Notre Dame Prep graduate, won three gold medals. Swimmer Brad Snyder, a Naval Academy graduate who lost his vision to an IED explosion while serving in Afghanistan, also won three gold medals.

These athletes from Maryland offered a delectable variety of treats for hometown Olympic watchers.


By now you know that Maryland is the real hero of the Rio Olympics. If you didn't — well, first, shame on you, and second, find your nearby newstand for proof.

There was Ledecky, the well-adjusted teenager from the Washington suburbs who somehow managed to meet every outlandish expectation placed upon her headed into the games. By the end of the week, it seemed we almost took her for granted as she left her closest competitors half a pool length behind. At 19 and now a freshman at Stanford, Ledecky has five career gold medals and a long list of world records. But she's always expanding her palette of races, and we've only just begun to hear from her.

The same is likely true of Kyle Snyder, who at 20 redeemed a disappointing week for USA Wrestling. He merely wants to become the greatest wrestler of all time.

Anthony, meanwhile, enjoyed a valedictory performance as the wizened leader of a USA Basketball program he had helped revive along with head coach Mike Krzyzewski. During his youth on the courts of West Baltimore, he never fathomed winning even one gold medal. Now he had more than any U.S. men's player in history.

Centrowitz was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Maryland gold medalists. He had finished fourth in 2012 in London, and his father had run the same race in the 1976 Olympics. But most analysts were picking decorated African runners Asbel Kiprop and Taoufik Makhloufi.

Matthew Centrowitz took gold in the Olympic 1,500-meter final Saturday night, becoming the first U.S. runner to win the event since 1908.

Centrowitz went to the lead early and held it against challenges from Kiprop, Makhloufi and others. It ended up one of the slowest 1,500-meter finals in Olympic history, but the winner hardly cared. He spotted his father in the crowd during his victory lap and bellowed, "Are you kidding me?"

For Kalisz, who grew up in Bel Air in a swimming-crazed family, a gold medal proved slightly out of reach. But he swam an easy personal best and staged a thrilling duel with longtime Japanese rival Kosuke Hagino in the 400 IM final. "That was all I could hope for," the proud 22-year-old said.

Phelps' other close friend from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Allison Schmitt, won a gold and a silver in two relay races, on paper a step back from her performance four years earlier. But Schmitt triumphed in a broader sense by returning to the medal stand after a harrowing struggle with depression. She resolved to raise awareness of mental health issues among athletes, and her family and Bowman could not have been prouder.

In the end, Phelps loomed over the games as he always has. He and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt cemented their claims as the greatest Olympians of this, and perhaps any, era.

Phelps had rebuilt himself over the two years leading up to Rio. He was sober after a September 2014 drunken-driving arrest. He had secretly married the love of his life, Nicole Johnson, and the couple had a baby son, Boomer. Phelps seemed far happier, in the pool and out, than he had four years earlier in London.

He had said he would be satisfied with the Olympics regardless of the results because he had thrown every fiber of himself into preparing. But he also badly wanted to win, a fact that was plain to see after he regained his crown in the 200-meter butterfly, a race he'd lost to cocky South African Chad le Clos in London.

He gestured defiantly to the crowd in the moments after he touched the wall, and his eyes welled with tears as he listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the medal stand. The race wasn't the fastest or most technically perfect of Phelps' career, but he and Bowman said it was probably the most satisfying — a symbol of the emotion and the grueling hours of practice he'd thrown into his comeback.

"This was a race that I really wanted tonight," he said. "I wanted that one [from 2012] back."

As Phelps prepared to swim his final relay, he felt the weight of the occasion. He and Bowman stuck close together during warmups, not saying much but holding back tears as they contemplated their 20 years together, a stormy blend of student-teacher, son-father and finally, friendship.


The race itself lacked drama as the U.S. men extended their long dominance of the medley relay. But everyone in the arena basked in the celebration of Phelps' career.

The man himself seemed dumbfounded at what he'd achieved, even as others began to speculate whether he'd truly swum his final race.

"I don't know what to say," Phelps concluded. "It's been a hell of a career."