Michael Phelps turned in another incredible performance in the pool at the 2016 Rio Olympics, taking home five gold medals and one silver and cementing his status as the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. And after every race, he heard the crowd (and his fellow U.S. swimmers) chant: “Four more years! Four more years!”
“This is what I came back for,” Phelps told Bob Costas on Sunday night, officially confirming his retirement once more. “At the age of 31, I’m happy to start moving forward into a new chapter of my life. I am retiring, this is it. That was the last race ever.”
It’s understandable that fans, and even Phelps’ longtime teammate and rival, Ryan Lochte, would be skeptical of his announcement. After all, he said the same thing after the 2012 London Games. But the swimming sensation feels that this time around, he’s truly ready to let go.
“I think the biggest change between now and London is, going into my last race in London, I was just looking forward to it being over,” he admitted. “I wasn’t really swimming that great, in my opinion, I wasn’t fully involved with it.”
Costas pointed out that Phelps’ performances in Rio is almost the same as it was in London -- technically speaking, it was better. But the most decorated Olympian of all time has been candid in the past about how the 2012 Games were not how he wanted to end his career. It seems the Rio Olympics have truly been the swan song he was searching for.
“Where I am now is exactly where I want to finish my career,” Phelps marveled. “I was able to come back and able to do things that I wanted to accomplish. Looking back at this week, it’s been nothing but a fun, exciting week. This is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted. I couldn’t ask for anything different and I’m looking forward to moving forward.”
Many swimming fans were skeptical about how Phelps would perform in Rio. At 31 years old, it’s undeniable that he hit a career peak at the Beijing Games eight years ago, and Phelps himself admitted that he wasn’t sure how successful he’d be at defending his Olympic titles until he took home a familiar gold medal in the 200m butterfly.
“Obviously having a great relay split [in the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay, his first event in Rio]...I was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna have a good meet,’” he explained. “After winning the 200m fly, I was like ‘OK, this could really happen.’ Then, [after] the 200m IM, I was like, ‘We are on target.’”
Phelps finished just short of perfection, taking silver behind Joseph Schooling in the 100m fly, but he says that’s just how the final meet of his career was supposed to go. As far as career highlights, one need only look at the jaw-dropping numbers.
“28 medals is still really hard to wrap my head around...It’s insane,” he told Costas of his career haul. “As a kid I set out to do something that nobody had ever done before. And I can look back at my career and say, ‘I did it.’”
Phelps says felt the emotional weight of his career coming to an end during the finals for Sunday’s 4x100m medley relay, his final event. He told Costas he felt the tears well up from the moment he walked into the pool to warm up and shared one final pre-race conversation with his longtime coach Bob Bowman.
“The memories we’ve built in this Olympics are much more meaningful than anything we’ve ever built,” he explained. “This whole thing started with one goal and one dream.”
Phelps also told Costas he was honored to be selected as the United States’ flagbearer in the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, and even more touched to be voted as one of the swim team’s captains, one of the only titles that had eluded him throughout his Olympic career. And now, he says he’s ending things with no regrets.
“I didn’t want to have a what if, 15-20 years down the line,” Phelps reflected. “I know now that I won’t have that. Because I was able to come back and do what I did here. That is, hands down, the best way to finish a career.”
An extra bonus? “I got to do it with my son here,” he added of 3-month-old Boomer, who sat (and snoozed) in the stands while his father won six more Olympic medals, five of them gold. “We’ll be able to share these memories with him when he grows up.”