LONDON — Someday, people will tell their grandchildren about this. How, under the swooping roof of the Aquatics Centre, on the final day of his final Olympics, they saw Michael Phelps race for the final time. They'll remember how they saw him, one more time, take a deficit and transform it into a lead. And they saw him win gold.
"I did it," Phelps said simply after an emotional day in which the 27-year-old Baltimore swimmer bade farewell to the sport he transformed. "Through the ups and down of my career, I've been able to do everything I've wanted to accomplish. I've been able to do things that nobody has ever done, and that's something I've always wanted to do.
"The memories that I've had from this week will never go away."
Tonight, swimming his signature stroke, the butterfly, in the 400-meter 4x100-meter medley relay, Phelps and his teammates finished in 3:29.35 seconds, just 0.01 seconds off the Olympic record the U.S. set in Beijing. It wasn't even close, with Japan and Australia winning silver and bronze in a race that the U.S has come to own, allowing Phelps to enjoy the camaraderie of his teammates, the roar of the crowd and his own sense of satisfaction.
The last day of his career played out as any other day of a meet, with practice and meals, and yet with an undeniably bittersweet overlay that comes with saying goodbye. Whether they said so or not, everyone he crossed paths with knew the significance of the day, even if Phelps says that as the time came for him to head to the pool one more time, his attitude was just, "Let's do it. Let's have fun."
But once he had taken care of business, once the race was over and his final gold medal secured, Phelps, too, gave in to the moment.
He headed to the warm-down pool, and a moment with Bob Bowman, the coach who first spotted the talented, competitive, skinny talent and competitiveness of a skinny 11-year-old boy running around Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington and nurtured and shaped him it into the transcendent swimmer of his or arguably any generation.
"I love you," Bowman said he told him.
Phelps took up the story from there: "I said, 'I've been able to become the best swimmer of all time.' I said, 'We got here together.' I thanked him."
Bowman called, "No fair — you're in the pool." Phelps understood.
"My tears could hide behind my goggles," Phelps said to Bowman. "Yours are streaming down your face."
It was a small, quiet moment for the two, even as back in the pool, the air was vibrating with both the thrill of witnessing Phelps win his 22nd medal — including 18 golds — and the poignant understanding poignancy that there would be no more. There was a sense that one had witnessed something special, something that would stand the test of time.
This week, Phelps iced the cake, gilded the lily or — to use the metaphor he repeatedly returns to — put a pretty big cherry on top of his sundae. Atop his still-astonishing eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, and the six golds and two bronzes from Athens in 2004, he became the most-decorated Olympian of all time Tuesday, when his medal total reached 19. Then, on Thursday, he became the first male swimmer to win gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics, three times, in the 200-meter individual medley. On Friday, he did it again, in the 100-meter butterfly. All told, in London, he captured four golds and two silvers.
Somehow, though, to reduce Phelps to the sum of his medals misses the sweep of his career, and the point of his final Games. Unlike Beijing, when he went for broke, eight gold medals or bust, the Phelps of these Games seemed to be chasing something that couldn't be measured in numbers.
He'd already done that, and even he wouldn't try to duplicate something so singular, so entirely of a certain place and time in his life. This time, it was not so much about him as about his sport, about his teammates, about what he would leave behind, what he could take away so he would never find himself looking back in regret.
"It seems he really was here to enjoy the Games, to love the sport, not worry about how many medals he's supposed to win," said swimmer Dana Vollmer. "He's smiling back there. He looks like he's absolutely loving it."
And, indeed, the Phelps on display here was not the intense and fierce-looking competitor of Beijing. The victories were celebrated not with those muscle-bulging, vein-popping, seemingly primal screams of four years ago. Instead, in triumph, Phelps broke into joyful grins, full of the kind of delight you imagine he felt as a boy, who just thought it was cool to get to the wall first.
"One of the first team meetings we had after trials, Michael stood up and said something to the team that I thought was pretty cool, because he's never really stood up and said anything to the team," said Brendan Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg of the relay. "He always kind of led by action, rightfully so. He was a guy who's got 14 gold medals before any of these Games, and he said to the team, 'I'll never remember the 14 medals. What I'll remember are the card games, the laughs, the jokes, the fun things, the conversations that you have.' "
Slow start, fast finish
Oddly enough, the fact that his week began in defeat may have produced the more relaxed Phelps of London. Just a week ago, he swam a sluggish 400-meter individual medley to, by his standards, a shocking fourth-place finish — and fears that Phelps had run out of steam. Instead, he bounced back, and each day climbed progressively out of whatever hole he had dug himself in.
"Honestly, the first race I think kind of took the pressure off," Bowman said. "I remember we were just saying, 'We might as well just enjoy it. It doesn't look like it'll go too well, we should at least have fun while we're here.' I do think that helped us relax a bit, then he started swimming well."
For his teammates, the newly vulnerable Phelps became even more of a leader and a mentor to the younger swimmers. How he handled adversity, they said, was even more telling than how he handled triumph.
"You can have great performances," was the lesson Vollmer took away, "but you can be extremely classy getting second."
For Olympics-goers, seeing Phelps this week was what it must have been like to see Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. You simply had to be there.
"We wanted to see Michael Phelps," Barbara Scanlon, 52, of San Francisco said of what brought her to this, her first Olympics. "We thought it might be the last time to see him."
A retired CPA and homemaker, she brought her son Ryan, 23, a Berkeley student, as a birthday present, swallowing the cost of a package deal that included the all-important — and hard to get — swimming tickets.
"We had to pay the price," she grimaced, as her son vowed to make it back by drinking a lot of the beer and wine included for free in one of the package's events.
"But it was worth it," she said.
Phelps picked up even more hardware tonight — he received the FINA Lifetime Achievement Award, an acknowledgment of how he's elevated the sport, bringing in new audiences and talent. FINA is the international governing body of swimming. The trophy was engraved with "Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time."
Even with all he's accomplished and with how high he's elevated his sport, Phelps said swimming hasn't hit its peak.
"There's so much more that could be done," he said.
It just won't him doing it.