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Michael Phelps, U.S. swimming look back and ahead after historic Olympics

Phelps awoke Sunday morning, the day after what he says was the last race of his career, as a contented man.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps

He picked up their 3-month-old son, Boomer, and woke him with a hug.

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The Baltimore native just had to do it after spending so much time away from his firstborn in preparation for the Rio Olympics. The most decorated medalist in history even changed a diaper.

Phelps awoke Sunday morning, the day after what he says was the last race of his career, as a contented man. He stared at all six medals — five gold and one silver — he won at these 2016 Games. And he felt, once again, that he'd done everything he possibly could in the sport that's dominated his life since he was 7 years old.

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"I was happy," he said. "I was happy with the way my career ended. And I couldn't say that about London" four years ago.

Phelps spent most of Saturday evening on the verge of tears as he prepared for his final race with his coach of 20 years, Bob Bowman. They didn't say much, but Bowman walked beside him through every stroke of his warmup swim.

"He knew last night was the last one," Phelps said, referring to the 4x100-meter medley relay. "I think that's why it was so special for both of us. We knew what we had been through, and we knew it was coming to an end."

Bowman said he'd be a fool to expect another swimmer of the same quality to enter his life.

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"I'm not even looking," Bowman said. "He's too special. It's not even once in a generation. It might be once in 10 generations that someone like Michael comes along. He had the physical skills, the mental outlook, the family that supported swimming. He was in a great swimming club. He has an emotional ability to get up for big races and actually perform better under pressure. So I don't think you're going to be seeing Michael. But you're going to be seeing a lot of other wonderful people."

Phelps led a U.S. team that outperformed expectations and turned the page toward a promising future without its most enduring star.

After American swimmers delivered a ragged performance at last year's world championships and underwhelming times at Olympic trials, some observers wondered whether the swimming world's longtime superpower was in danger of losing its supremacy.

U.S. swimming captain Nathan Adrian talks about security at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil. (Childs Walker, Baltimore Sun video)

But the United States reasserted its dominance here, winning 33 overall medals, 23 more than second-place Australia, and 16 gold medals, 13 more than any other country. The medal count was up from 31 in 2012.

"It seemed like pretty much every race, we had somebody up on that podium," Phelps said.

NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines called this U.S. team the "greatest Olympic swim team in the modern era."

"It's very hard to believe what we were thinking coming out of trials and what people were forecasting," said Bowman, the head coach for the U.S. men in Rio. "But somehow, we found a way to do it."

Bowman said the U.S. coaching staff was the best he's been on and also credited the team's older leaders.

"The catalysts … were the captains, the team captains," he said. "This was Michael's first time being a captain, and he did a really great job of being vocal, helping people, kind of leading younger guys. And I think that really helped us get to the right frame of mind and the right team cohesion to do what we did here, which was historic in many ways."

Aside from Phelps, many of the top stars plan to continue swimming through the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Bethesda's Katie Ledecky, 19, leads the pack after living up to outlandish expectations by winning four gold medals and smashing two world records.

Ledecky will begin her freshman year at Stanford when she gets home and will swim for the Cardinal. She said she hasn't set her goals for 2020 but assured reporters they would be ambitious.

Ledecky was a sure thing. More uplifting were surprise star turns from first-time Olympians Simone Manuel, Lilly King and Ryan Murphy, among others.

"I'm not someone who focuses on the expectations of others," Manuel said when asked about the pre-Olympic fretting around the team. "And I think that's something that the USA does. The coaches and the staff and just the culture remind us to stay unified, enjoy the process and just love what you're doing."

Manuel, 20 became the first black woman ever to win an individual swimming gold medal at the Olympics when she upset Australian Cate Campbell in the 100-meter freestyle. Manuel then earned a silver medal in the 50 freestyle and a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay on the last day of competition.

She and Ledecky will be teammates at Stanford.

King, 19, meanwhile, became the early sensation of the Olympics when she upset Russian Yulia Efimova in the 100 butterfly and made it clear she did not believe Efimova should be competing because of past doping violations. King's outspoken stance, combined with her fast swim, brought a Cold War flair to the race.

Murphy, 21, did not command as many headlines as his young teammates, but the backstroke specialist won three gold medals in three events and set a world record in the 4x100 medley relay that was also Phelps' final race.

Bel Air's Chase Kalisz, 22, won a silver medal in his first Olympic final. He shaved nearly three seconds off his career-best time in the 400 IM and plans to continue battling with his Japanese rivals, Daiya Seto and Kosuke Hagino, over the next four years.

But before the U.S. team could move on to its encouraging future, it said goodbye — if tentatively, given many of the younger swimmers' hopes that Phelps will unretire again — to its greatest star.

Phelps didn't offer too many specifics about how he will occupy himself in the months to come. He will work as an unpaid assistant to Bowman, who coaches at Arizona State. He and Johnson plan to marry toward the end of the year and remain in Arizona for at least a few years.

Phelps promised he would show up in Baltimore now and then to visit friends and family, cheer on the Ravens and Orioles and eat crabs.

"It's great for us to be in a new area and start a fresh family, a new family," he said. "But Baltimore's for life for me. … That is my home. That's where I grew up. That's where I learned to swim."

He even chided a reporter in the audience for wearing Pittsburgh Steelers garb.

Phelps revealed that he's learned to lull Boomer to sleep by dangling his medals back and forth. And he might even let his firstborn take one into school for show and tell some day.

"I might have to go with him and take every step with him." Phelps joked.

Only two or three people know where he keeps his medal stash, he added. But he's looking forward to seeing all 28 together.

"Insane," he said, an apt final verdict on his career.

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