Once every four years, swimming returns to popularity on the worldwide stage during the Summer Olympics, and once every generation or so, there is a swimmer who defines the sport for devotees and casual fans alike.
For over a decade now, that swimmer has been Michael Phelps.
Competitive swimmers of Phelps’ generation grew up hearing the legend of Mark Spitz -- the nine-time Olympic champion who won seven golds at the 1972 Games in Munich -- and kids in age groups across the country are looking toward swimmers like Katie Ledecky to define the future. But there may never be a bigger name in the sport than Phelps, who walks away from the Rio Games as not only the greatest swimmer of all time, but also the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, with a staggering 28 medals. What’s more, only five of them aren’t gold.
Phelps made his Olympic debut at 15, stepping onto the international stage at the 2000 Sydney Games as the youngest male swimmer to make the American Olympic team in 68 years. He didn’t medal, but if you were looking closely, you might have seen what was to come. As American fans watched Tom Malchow win the gold in the 200m butterfly while setting a new Olympic record, there, two lanes over, was Phelps, swimming in his first Olympic final. Four years later, he would break that record and win a gold medal of his own.
In fact, he would win six.
In Athens in 2004, at the site of the first modern Olympiad, Phelps began a career run on his way to becoming arguably the greatest Olympian of all time. He won not only the 200m fly, but also the 100m, as well as the 200m and 400m individual medley, picking up a bronze in the 200m freestyle and three relay medals to boot. Just 19 years old, Phelps had the second-best performance at a single Olympics in history, falling one gold medal behind Spitz’s single-Games record.
But that was nothing compared to Beijing.
The 2008 Olympics were Phelps’ masterpiece. He won gold in each of the eight events he competed in, setting world records in all but one. The Olympic audience -- including Ian Thorpe, arguably the greatest Australian swimmer of all time -- doubted it could be done; Phelps used that doubt as fuel to his fire.
"Never in my life have I been so happy to have been proved wrong,” said Thorpe, who watched Phelps win his eighth gold from the stands, sitting next to Phelps’ mother, Debbie. “I enjoyed every moment of it."
Spitz himself dubbed the record-breaking performance “epic.”
“It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he's maybe the greatest athlete of all time,” he said of passing the torch. “He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet.”
Seven of the eight Olympic records Phelps set during those Games still stand today, perhaps the greatest testament to just how dominant his performance truly was. After Beijing, he would take a step back from the rigors of Olympic training, if only to remember how to breathe nonchlorinated air. But the first attempt at retirement wouldn’t stick.
Four years later in London, Phelps was on a farewell tour of sorts. Motivated by times posted at the 2011 World Championships that he thought he could beat, he got back in the pool and back into Olympic shape, with results the world should have seen coming.
He won six more medals at the 2012 Games, four of them gold, and at the end of swimming competition, FINA presented him with a special trophy commemorating his new title as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
"I'm looking forward to moving on to the next chapter of my life,” Phelps told reporters definitively after the London Games. "This is the first day of retirement.”
This attempt at walking away from the sport, however, would be even less successful than his first. In September 2014, Phelps would be arrested on a DUI charge, his second. He has since said that depression and drinking after the London Games contributed to his “downward spiral.”
“I still remember the days locked up in my room, not wanting to talk to anybody, not wanting to see anybody, really not wanting to live,” Phelps told Bob Costas in a sit-down interview before the Rio Games. “I was on the express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be. And I found it.”
This time around, it’s about redemption.
"I want to be here. That's the difference,” Phelps told Matt Lauer before the Games, comparing Rio to what he feels now was a disappointing turn at the London Olympics. “I had no desire to go to work out before. And I want to retire how I want to retire. I have a great opportunity to do that. I haven't trained like this in a decade."
There was still one more record Phelps had his eye on in Rio -- most individual Olympic gold medals -- but his performance as a whole has felt much more like a swan song. He stands on the blocks next to swimmers who had their pictures taken with him as young fans. His 3-month-old son, Boomer, watches him from the stands.
He’s an elder statesman, and while he can still dominate a race -- and knows it -- there is an air of maturity befitting a man who is both a new father and a first-time team captain. His cocky “come at me” gesture after regaining his gold medal title in the 200m fly stands in contrast to his brotherly embrace of relay teammate Ryan Held, who broke down in tears on his first trip to the top of the podium.
But that’s the kind of man Phelps is now. He grins as they drape more gold around his neck and chokes up when NBC’s Michele Tafoya asks what it means to have his son watching him swim.
“The life that I live now is a dream come true,” he told Costas in a pretaped package that aired before he and longtime rival Ryan Lochte faced off in the 200m IM final one last time. “I’m able to do what I love in the pool and out of the pool. I have a beautiful baby boy, a gorgeous fiancee, a great family. I’m closer to the people who like me and love me for me than I ever have been in my life.”
In Rio, the only records left for Phelps to break were ancient, sometimes literally. His win in the 200m fly made him the oldest man to win individual swimming gold, breaking a 96-year-old record set by Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku in 1920. (The record was short-lived, broken again by 35-year-old Anthony Ervin just three days later.) His 13th individual Olympic title, won in the 200m IM, broke a record set in 512 BC by Leonidas of Rhodes, who won 12 olive wreaths in events like the hoplitodromos, a run performed while wearing armor. He also joined the ranks of track and field legends Al Oerter and Carl Lewis as one of the only Olympians to win a single individual event four times. There is seemingly nothing more for Phelps to conquer.
But still, fans wonder if this is really it for the swimming champion. After all, he’s said it before.
Following his anchor leg in the gold medal-winning 4x200m freestyle relay, the crowd in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium (led, in part, by Lochte) started a chant. “Four more years! Four more years!”
Phelps shook his head, with a laugh that might seem sheepish coming from someone else. “Not again!” he called back.
“This is it,” he told Tafoya after his final Olympic preliminary race ever in the 100m fly. “I’m swimming how I want to and this is a great way to finish.”
Swimming doesn’t offer the kind of glory some sports do, at least for most of its competitors. There’s no pro league to aspire to, lucrative endorsement deals are few and far between, and the majority of the sport is solitary practice, jumping into chilly waters at all hours of the day in the pursuit of shaving just a few more seconds off your best time. That is why swimmers everywhere will tell you that someone like Michael Phelps is important. More important, perhaps, than Peyton Manning was to football or Derek Jeter to baseball.
Signups for local swim leagues and club teams skyrocket in the weeks following the Olympics, and young butterflyers with their caps on crooked flap their arms on the blocks the way they watched Phelps do it. The swimming legend may owe a lot to the sport that brought him fame, fortune and international notoriety, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe the sport owes him more in return.
Michael Phelps, the man, is a hero to swimmers everywhere, but Michael Phelps, the legend, is also a point of pride. “He’s one of us,” kids in pools around the world think. “The world’s best athlete, the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s one of us.”
No one knew what to expect from Phelps in Rio. He has broken 39 world records in his career and currently holds seven, but it’s an undeniable fact that he’s eight years removed from his career peak.
“As long as I can look back, once this summer’s over, and know that I did everything I could to get ready, I’ll be happy,” he told The Telegraph before the Games. “It doesn’t matter if I don’t win a single medal.”
Who knows if he meant it. Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder. Phelps stood atop the podium five times at the 2016 Rio Olympics -- cementing his status as one of the greatest athletes in history -- and for the last time, heard the cheers of an enthusiastic Olympic crowd, a reverent swimming community, and a grateful nation.