RIO DE JANEIRO – This loss barely stung, because of all that came before it. Michael Phelps swam an individual race for the last time Friday night at the Rio Olympic Aquatics Stadium, and was beaten by 21-year-old Joseph Schooling of Singapore, a rising junior and NCAA champion at the University of Texas. Minutes later Phelps stood before a cluster of media beneath the stands. He smiled and laughed. “I’m me, so I’m still going to be hard on myself because I don’t like to lose,” said Phelps. “But I’m accepting it. It’s what I had.”
It has been a remarkable week for Phelps in the pool. His fifth Olympics, including two extended retirements and numerous complicating detours, produced gold medals in his first four races, two individual events and two relays. At the age of 31, he extended his ridiculous Olympic record to 22 gold medals and 26 medals overall, before climbing atop the starting block to contest Friday’s 100-meter butterfly. “It’s been a really long week,” he would say after the race. “I knew it was going to be a tough one.”
He knew this because the 100 fly has always been tough for him at the championship level. He is the world record holder from 2009, and has won the race in three consecutive Olympics, but by a combined margin of just .28 seconds, including a memorable victory over Milorad Cavic of Serbia by just .01 seconds in Beijing in 2008. And he knew it because at his advanced swimming age, and having swum 10 races here before the 100 fly final, he was exhausted. After winning the 200-meter individual medley for the fourth consecutive Olympics Thursday night, Phelps said, “My body is pain, my legs are hurting. I’m tired.”
So he swam sluggishly off the blocks and was in just sixth place at the 50-meter wall in 24.16 seconds. “Pretty slow,” said Phelps. “If I wanted to be in the race, I had to go a lot faster than that.”
Schooling led at the turn and never surrendered that lead, finishing in 50.39 seconds, a faster time than Phelps swam in any of his Olympic victories. Phelps rallied to finish in an unprecedented (for swimming) three-way tie at 51.14 seconds with 30-year-old Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, who has long battled Phelps, and Chad le Clos, the 24-year-old South African who has occasionally motivated Phelps with trash talk. At the victory ceremony, le Clos stood in the middle and clasped hands with Phelps and Cseh, before climbing to the silver medal spot. It was Phelps’s third Olympic silver medal, to go with two bronzes and those 22 golds.
One night earlier, Phelps had spoken poignantly of leaving the sport on his own terms. “Everything I’ve put my mind to, I’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. But not this. “I would love to have ended with a victory in my last individual race,” said Phelps. “Joe is a good swimmer. He was the most prepared swimmer in the field tonight.”
There is symmetry in that, as well. Schooling is a decade younger than Phelps, and like so many swimmers of that generation, he was inspired to swim fast by the younger Phelps. He posed for a picture with Phelps at the 2008 Olympics. “A lot of us,” Schooling said. “Michael is the reason I wanted to be a swimmer. I idolized him. He’s the greatest swimmer in history.” That, in turn, was Phelps’s goal. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming,” Phelps said. “That’s what I wanted to do. Daring kids to dream. I was a little kid with a dream, and that dream turned into a couple medals.” And then many more than that.
The medal was Schooling’s first, although he competed in the 2012 Olympics, as a 17-year-old. “I can’t imagine 22 or 23 [medals],” he said. “That’s out of this world.”
Likewise, Cseh recalled a more than a decade’s worth of battles with Phelps. “I came here thinking that maybe I could beat Michael,” said Cseh. “But Michael showed that he is the best swimmer in the world. Still.”
Earlier on Friday, Phelps’s mother, Debbie, appeared on NBC’s Today Show and said that it would be “wonderful” if her son were to race Ryan Lochte, the longtime rival who faded to fifth place in the 200 IM on Thursday night, in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Likewise, Lochte said, “Michael, I’ll see you in Tokyo.”
Phelps has one more race in Rio, Saturday night’s 4×100-meter medley relay. He will swim the butterfly leg, as he has in three previous Olympics. And that, he said, will be the end of his career. “I’ll just clarify,” said Phelps immediately after the race. “Ryan doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says I’m coming back in 2020.”
At the post-race press conference, seated at a table with Schooling, le Clos and Cseh, Phelps cut off a question about 2020. “Nope, done,” he said. “I’m not doing four more years. I’m standing by that.” He had left the sport after the Olympics in 2012, burned out and unhappy. He returned to settle unfinished business. “I didn’t want to have a ‘What If’” he said. “I’m happy with this finish. Now I’m in a better state of mind than I was four years ago. I’m ready to retire.”
First, there is one more race, a relay that the United States when participating in the Olympics has not lost since 1960. It will almost certainly be Phelps’s 23rd and final Olympic gold medal. For most of the next four years, he will parry rumors of his unretirement, or he will actually unretire. Never say never with great athletes. For now: “Couple weeks, a couple months,” said Phelps, “Not going to do much.”
A vacation earned, 16 years in the making, framed mostly in gold, with just a little bit of fresh silver at the edge.