His final race over, Michael Phelps’s influence on swimming hard to measure

RIO DE JANEIRO – At the end, Michael Phelps thought about the beginning. In 2000, when he was 15 and swimming in his first Olympics, in Sydney, he and Aaron Piersol talked about swimming in the 400 medley relay someday. Now here was Phelps, at the end of a career that was bigger and better than any that came before it, finishing his career in that same race, in what has become a different sport.

The race ended with a gold medal. Of course it did. Most Michael Phelps finals end with a gold medal. Phelps now has 23 gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes. He won’t say where he keeps them, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Phelps’s biggest triumph is not the medals he won, but the people he changed.

Officially, on the final night of his career (he swears!), Phelps only swam 100 meters of the butterfly. That’s it. But that’s not it. Phelps had a hand in Ryan Murphy beginning that relay with a world record of 51.85 seconds in the 100 backstroke. As Murphy said afterward, “I’d be lying if I said being part of the relay didn’t propel me to a world record.” Murphy knew he was swimming with Michael Phelps, in a race America just doesn’t lose.

And there was Phelps, encouraging the American women as they won their own 400 medley relay. His inspiration may seem funny at first—Lilly King said, “he went in for a fist bump and I went in for a high-five. We kind of turkey-ed it.” But it wasn’t just a botched high-five. It was a botched high-five with Michael Phelps.

“Michael has been an Olympian since I was three,” King said. “I’ve grown up watching him swim and looking up to him. Being able to learn from him on this trip … I don’t want to say I was watching his every move, but I was kind of learning from him, and observing him—all his greatness and what he does.”

You couldn’t run away from the Michael Phelps story this week, and best of all, nobody wanted to. After the final gold medal, reporters asked relay mates Murphy, Nathan Adrian and Cody Miller about the pressure of swimming in Phelps’s last race, as though they were his personal chef, driver and back-cupper instead of equals on a relay team. But they understood.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on Feb. 20, 2004 in Baltimore.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on May 4, 2004 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Peter Vanderkaay, Michael Phelps, and Ryan Lochte celebrate after winning the Men's 4x200m Freestyle Relay Final during the Summer Olympics on Aug. 17, 2004 at Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece.

Michael Phelps swims in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the Summer Olympics on Aug. 20, 2004 at Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece. Phelps won gold with an Olympic record time of 51.25.

Michael Phelps tries to submerge a laptop computer during a photo shoot on Jan. 26, 2005 at Canham Natatorium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps reacts to weighing down a laptop computer during a photo shoot on Jan. 26, 2005 at Canham Natatorium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps swims to an underwater study lounge during a photo shoot on Jan. 26, 2005 at Canham Natatorium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps dives at the start of the Men's 200m Individual Medley Final during an International Meet on June 25, 2006 at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif.

Michael Phelps swims during the Men's 400m Individual Medley Heats on April 1, 2007 at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.

Michael Phelps laughs with teammate as USA coach Bob Bowman looks on during training for the Beijing Olympic Games on Feb. 19, 2008 at Canham Natatorium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on Feb. 23, 2008 at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on Feb. 23, 2008 at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps swims underwater during a photo shoot on Feb. 23, 2008 at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Phelps swims in the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final during the Summer Olympics on Aug. 10, 2008 at the National Aquatics Center (Water Cube) in Beijing, China. Phelps won gold with a world record time of 4:03.84.

Michael Phelps poses in a tuxedo during a photo shoot on Nov. 18, 2008 at New York Athletic Club in New York City.

Michael Phelps poses in a tuxedo underwater during a photo shoot on Nov. 18, 2008 at New York Athletic Club in New York City.

Michael Phelps swims in a tuxedo underwater during a photo shoot on Nov. 18, 2008 at New York Athletic Club in New York City.

Michael Phelps poses with a birthday cake ahead of the 20th anniversary of SI Kids during a photo shoot on Nov. 18, 2008 at New York Athletic Club in New York City.

Michael Phelps listens to music on his iPod before competition on May 15, 2009 at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in Charlotte, N.C.

Michael Phelps dives at the start of the Men's 100m Backstroke during the International Grand Prix Swim Meet on June 13, 2009 at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif.

Michael Phelps dives at the start of the Men's 200m Butterfly Final during the FINA World Championships on July 29, 2009 at Foro Italico in Rome, Italy.

Michael Phelps reacts to winning the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the FINA World Championships on July 29, 2009 at Foro Italico in Rome, Italy.

Michael Phelps walks along the field following the Baltimore Ravens 20-17 OT win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 29, 2009 at MT Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Michael Phelps practices his backstroke during the International Grand Prix Swim Meet on June 17, 2011 at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif.

Michael Phelps practices his backstroke during the International Grand Prix Swim Meet on June 18, 2011 at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif.

Michael Phelps holds a bunny as he is greeted by fans following the Men's 4x100m Freestyle Relays Final during the FINA World Swimming Championships on July 24, 2011 at Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China.

Michael Phelps poses with SI Swimsuit model Bar Refaeli during a photo shoot on Nov. 30, 2011 in New York City.

Michael Phelps poses with SI Swimsuit model Bar Refaeli during a photo shoot on Nov. 30, 2011 in New York City.

Michael Phelps poses with SI Swimsuit model Bar Refaeli during a photo shoot on Nov. 30, 2011 in New York City.

Michael Phelps poses with SI Swimsuit model Bar Refaeli during a photo shoot on Nov. 30, 2011 in New York City.

Michael Phelps swims in the Men's 200m Butterfly Final during U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials on June 28, 2012 at CenturyLink Center in                             Omaha, Nebr.

Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones and Ryan Lochte look on after the Men's 4x100m Freestyle Relay Final during the Summer Olympics on July 29, 2012 at the Aquatics Centre in London.

Michael Phelps swims in the Men's 200m Individual Medley Final during the Summer Olympics on July 29, 2012 at the Aquatics Centre in London.

Michael Phelps holds a signed ticket from the night he won his 17th individual gold medal during a photo shoot on Aug. 7, 2012 at NBC's Today Show television set in Olympic Park in London.

Michael Phelps looks on during Four-Ball matches on Sept. 29, 2012 at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill.

Michael Phelps walks along the field during the AFC Championship game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots on Jan. 20, 2013 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Michael Phelps reacts to a drive during the Pro-Am on Jan. 30, 2013 at TPC Scottsdale, Ariz.

Michael Phelps takes a picture with his iPhone during Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3, 2013 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Michael Phelps smiles during the Swimming Grand Prix Series on April 25, 2014 at Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Ariz.

Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte pose together before the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the Swimming Grand Prix Series on April 25, 2014 at Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Ariz.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on Nov. 5, 2015 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on Nov. 5, 2015 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Michael Phelps poses during a photo shoot on May 27, 2016 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Michael Phelps competes in the second semifinal heat of the Men's 200m Butterfly during the Summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2016 at the                            Olympic Aquatics Centre in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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“He’s completely changed (swimming),” Adrian said. “He’s influenced the entire Olympic movement.”

Who saw this coming? Incredibly, Phelps did. As he said Saturday, “This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming, to do something nobody else has ever done.”

His heroes were not just Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi; he wanted to be his sport’s Michael Jordan. When he earned his 23rd and final gold, he thought immediately of Jordan’s 23.

America had star swimmers before Phelps showed up. But Phelps became something larger, a name everybody knew, an athlete who commanded the respect we previously accorded to the best football or basketball players. His swimming is done and his Olympic medals have been counted, but his work cannot be fully assessed. That will take years.

So much has been made of Phelps’s personal transformation since the 2012 London games. That story is easily packaged: The DUI, bong photo and occasional churlishness are in the past; fiancée Nicole Johnson, son Boomer and personal happiness are the present. Phelps said, “The biggest thing that’s changed is, you guys are seeing me. You might never have seen that before.”

But even as a changed man, Phelps has not forgotten that dream he had as a kid. He said Saturday, “I am retiring, but I’m not done-done with swimming. This is just the start of something new.”

We’ll see what he means by that, but it should not surprise anybody if Phelps continues to push swimming to the masses.  He loves his sport in a way that is unusual, even for elite athletes. He did not just want to dominate it; he wanted to elevate it.

He did that. Nobody is confusing swimming’s popularity with the NFL’s, but Phelps had an impact that was hard to fathom a generation ago. He was arguably the biggest star of four straight summer Olympics. He made swimming the Olympic sport to watch in the United States.

His coach, Bob Bowman, was asked about finding the next Phelps. He said, “Absolutely not. I’m not even looking. It’s not even once in a generation. It might be once in 10 generations.”

A talent like this can leave the pool, but it never really leaves the sport. Just as young basketball players are influenced (knowingly or unknowingly) by Jordan, young swimmers all swim in Phelps’s wake. Here in Rio, Phelps looked around at the faces and the names that were winning races—and the flags next to those names. He was amazed.

“It’s not one or two or three countries,” he said. “It’s everybody. That’s something I’ve never seen in the sport.”

Twenty-eight medals. Twenty-three are gold. Phelps can hide those medals if he wants. Young swimmers will still close their eyes at night and see them.



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