And then there was one.
Michael Phelps came up golden again today swimming his last individual race, the 100-meter butterfly. He has just his leg in the 400-meter medley relay left to swim in these Olympic Games — or any other for that matter.
"I'm just happy that the last [individual] one was a win," Phelps said. "That's all I really wanted coming into the night."
His gold medal in the 200 IM on Thursday marked the first time a male swimmer has won the same event in three straight Olympics. He duplicated that feat today in the 100 butterfly, winning his 17th career gold medal.
Saturday brings the last of a week of lasts: the Baltimore swimmer, now 27, is retiring from competitive swimming after these Games, but already his legacy can be found in the pool with him.
Call them the post-Michael generation, the young swimmers who — like him — swim big multi-stroke and multi–distance programs, who have studied his races and adopted his playbook and now, as he leaves, are living proof that he has fulfilled his goal of elevating the sport.
Today, Phelps shared the stage with them: Chad le Clos, the 20-year-old South African swimmer who repeatedly watched Phelps' races on his computer and whose only hope was to one day be in the same pool as him for a 200 fly, even if it was just a preliminary heat. Instead, he went on to beat Phelps Tuesday night in that race by a fingertip, and on Friday, tied for silver in the 100 fly to his idol's gold.
There is Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old phenom who broke a world record in today's 200-meter backstroke, adding to the two golds and one bronze she won earlier in the week. Franklin said she has watched Phelps at meets, marveling at — and trying to emulate — his calm despite his packed race schedule.
"What he's done is incredible, and it's helped people re-think the impossible, and re-think what they can do and how they can push themselves," Franklin said. "He goes through so much every single day. To see how he handles everything with such calmness, I think that's what really opened my eyes a little bit.
"You never see him in a panic."
And then there's Katie Ledecky of Bethesda, who at 15 is the youngest U.S. athlete at the Games, and who nearly broke a world record in winning gold in the 800-meter freestyle today — "a pretty good first Olympics," wryly noted Phelps, who chatted with her before the race.
"Michael is the first Olympian I ever met when I was six, right before I started swimming," Ledecky said. "So to hear a good luck from him before the race was really cool. I just thought back to that, and it really calmed me down."
The now-familiar Phelps was on display in today's 100 butterfly: the swimmer who seemingly comes out of nowhere — or in this race, seventh place halfway through — to streak to the wall first in 51.21 seconds. How he can pace himself as other swimmers are passing him, knowing he'll be able to dig in, chase down and overtake them in the end, remains one of the joys of watching him.
With Phelps' swimming career nearly over, he seemed both relieved and nostalgic today. Like an old gunslinger, he is ready to let someone else take care of business. It's not that he can't do the job, as his three gold- and two silver-medal haul so far shows, but it takes much more out of him now.
"Going through everything I went through this week and feeling how I felt differently shows that I was in the best shape of my life in 2008," Phelps said of his record-breaking golden sweep of his eight races. "For me to be able to do that, everything had to fall into the right place at the right time, and everything had to be perfect."
If he wanted a reminder of his Beijing heroics, he only had to look two lanes over to see Milorad Cavic, the Serbian swimmer who came the closest to denying him one of those gold medals. By .01 of a second, Phelps out-touched him in the 100 fly in Beijing to remain on track for eight medals. Cavic, who has since had back surgery, finished fourth on Friday, after the two swimmers who tied for second, le Clos and Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin.
With the end in sight, Phelps said he is looking forward to eating whatever he wants, rather than the pizza and pasta he chows down every day to refuel. He's worried, though, that his weight could "blow up" the way he did after taking time off after Beijing, so he's planning to stay active.
Le Clos seems to be part of his future. Phelps said he wants to cage dive with him in the younger swimmer's native country, and play video games — although the South African is a Playstation guy and he is Xbox.
But he's not abandoning swimming, just moving to the stands.
"The sport is going to be fun to watch. I'm excited to see it from the outside more than anything and to see what these guys do to continue changing the sport," Phelps said. "Missy is swimming 15 million events, Ryan's going another four years, and Tyler [Clary] had a great swim last night. He's very versatile. ... There are a lot of people that are going to be fun to watch over the next four years.
"I would love to go to worlds this summer and just to watch these guys compete," he said. "It's going to be fun to watch Chad, and see what he does the next four years."
Whether he will miss being in the pool himself, Phelps said he can't say at this point.
"To be honest, I thought it would hit me a lot harder than what it is right now," he said. "I guess a lot of those emotions haven't really come through my brain in the last week. Once I'm done, and once [Saturday] is over I think there's going to be a lot more emotion that comes out."
He heads into his final race, the 400 medley relay, remembering how after he qualified for his first Olympics in 2000, one of his goals was to swim the event.
"The 400 medley has been such a big race for our country. We've been able to be so successful in that race, and it's something that we as a team look forward to," Phelps said. "It is the last race, it's the very last race on the eighth day.
"To be able to finish the night how I finished with my individual career," he said, "we have a way in mind how we want to finish the relay, and how we want to finish the meet."
He didn't say how exactly, when it comes to the most-decorated Olympian of all time, whose medal count stands at 21, it's not much of a leap to think he'd like one more. And preferably gold.