Olympian Michael Phelps journey started in Baltimore and now has covered five Olympics, winning 28 Olympic medals and 23 gold medals. He is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
This story is part of a special section commemorating Michael Phelps that will be available in Sunday's edition of The Sun.
Michael Phelps came to Brazil in search of a feeling as much as another pile of Olympic medals to add to a collection that was already the largest in the history of the games.
He wanted to compete at one more Olympics feeling he'd done everything he could to prepare and feeling the same love for his sport he had as a 15-year-old kid swimming in Sydney.
He said he felt those things in London four years ago, the first time he retired. But he was just saying what people wanted to hear. In truth, that Phelps was an exhausted, frustrated man.
The Phelps of 2016, on the other hand, is a new father and soon-to-be husband who cries on the medal stand after races and smiles graciously after he's lost to a hungry young competitor who idolized him growing up.
After some very public soul searching, he's a happier person. And as we learned in Rio, the 31-year-old Phelps is still a remarkable swimmer.
Phelps began his fifth Olympics by carrying the American flag into the opening ceremony. He'd never even marched in one before, always opting to rest. But he said he felt deeply honored to be chosen by his fellow U.S. athletes.
Then he announced his presence at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium with a stunningly fast leg in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, a race we didn't know for sure he'd swim until an hour before competition began that night. Phelps gave the underdog U.S. quartet a lead it would never relinquish with a 50-meter turn that left everyone in the stadium buzzing.
Phelps had not swum particularly fast five weeks earlier at Olympic trials, but his relay leg signaled that he had again found a way to be at his best for the Olympics.
He only confirmed that two nights later, when he won gold in the race he wanted more than any other — the 200-meter butterfly. It was the race in which he'd qualified for his first Olympics and the one he'd lost to South African Chad le Clos in London in 2012.
Phelps had never gotten over his frustration from that defeat, and he gestured to the crowd defiantly after he had beaten le Clos and everyone else to recapture his signature event. His coach of 20 years, Bob Bowman, said it was his second favorite Phelps race ever behind the swimmer's first gold-medal win in Athens. Phelps had thrown so much of himself into the 200 butterfly that his eyes filled with tears as he listened to the Star-Spangled Banner afterward. He climbed to the edge of the stands to hug his mother and fiancee and to hold his 3-month-old son, Boomer.
Then he went out 10 minutes later and won another gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay.
Phelps followed that up with his most commanding victory of the games in the 200-meter individual medley. He won his fourth consecutive gold medal in that race, joining Carl Lewis in the long jump and Al Oerter in the discus as the only athletes ever to win the same event four Olympics in a row.
He just shook his head that night when interviewers asked him about that record and his growing mound of gold medals.
If Phelps showed his age at all, it was the next night in the 100-meter butterfly, where he settled for a three-way tie for silver behind a 21-year-old from Singapore named Joseph Schooling.
But we did not see an angry Phelps in the wake of that defeat. Rather, he smiled, said he'd given everything he could and spoke of how eager he is to watch how fast Schooling can go in the future.
Phelps capped his week and, he says, his Olympic career with another decisive leg in a victorious relay, this time in the 4x100-medley relay.
He doubled over after the race was won, letting the emotion of the moment wash over him as the Brazilian crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The gold medal he won was the 23rd of his career. No one else has more than nine. In 30 Olympic finals, Phelps reached the medal stand 28 times. No one else has more than 18 medals. He even broke a 2,168-year-old record for most individual gold medals.
Phelps again shook his head when asked to put those numbers in perspective. "I don't know what to say," he said. "It's been a hell of a career."
Again, he steered the conversation away from medals. The important thing, he said, was that he'd worked as hard as he could and rediscovered his joy for swimming. He had added the exclamation point he wanted, and he was ready to become a full-time family man.
Other swimmers held out hope that we'll see Phelps again in 2020 in Tokyo. His friend and rival, Ryan Lochte, outright predicted it. Even his mother said a sixth Olympics would be nice.
But Phelps said over and over we won't see him in an Olympic pool again. The reason was simple — he couldn't possibly create a better ending.