Niyo: Phelps' exit befits legend swaddled in gold

John Niyo
The Detroit News
United States' Michael Phelps walks with the U.S. flag during the medal ceremony for the men's 4x100-meter medley relay final Saturday.

He swam all the way to the wall this time.

And though his body ached something fierce as this week’s swimming competition at Rio’s Olympic Aquatics Center came to an end Saturday night, his heart, this time, knew it was a sincere feeling after an honest effort.

That’s why the tears came so easily for Michael Phelps this week in Rio, and why he really does mean it when he says he’s done. It’s why he probably is, too, unlike four years ago after the London Olympics. when he bid farewell to the sport he’d dragged into uncharted waters only to return a couple years later, determined to make amends.

"This is it,” Phelps said, before he capped his career in style with one final gold medal Saturday night in the men’s 400-meter medley relay. “I swore in London I wasn't coming back. This is final. … I am not going four more years. And I'm standing by that. I've been able to do everything I've ever put my mind to in 24 years in this sport.

"That's why I came back after '12. I didn't want to have a 'what if?' 20 years later. Being able to close the door on this sport how I want to, that's why I'm happy now.”

Saturday night, he was smiling again on the podium as his national anthem played. In the stands, his mother, Debbie, was awash in tears, and Phelps’ fiancée, Nicole Johnson, was wiping some away, as well, while holding their 3-month-old son, Boomer. Phelps did what he could to hold it in, though he’d already had several good cries the last few days.

“It’s been a dream come true week,” he said after Saturday’s medal ceremony.

One more splash

Phelps didn’t need Rio to confirm his status as the greatest Olympian of all time. But he wanted something more: a personal fulfillment. So he came, he swam, and he won six more medals in all, five of them gold.

That gives him 28 medals for his career, and 23 of them gold.

United States' Michael Phelps displays his gold medal for the men's  4x100-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions.

"That's a lot of medals," Phelps said. "It's just insane."

How insane? That gold-medal tally that would tie him for 34th place in Olympic history if he were his own country. No other Olympian has more than nine golds.

“People have no idea how difficult it is to win one Olympic gold medal,” said Bob Bowman, his longtime coach who is serving as the U.S. men’s head coach in Rio. “Michael has done it so frequently that it’s really hard to put into perspective. But every one of those was hard.”

It was Bowman who convinced Phelps’ parents nearly 20 years ago that their 11-year-old son could make the Olympics if they trusted him, and his plan, one that grew more meticulous — and masterful — as each year passed.

He was right, at nearly every turn, though that’s something that only now does Phelps whole-heartedly admit, without prompting.

They had their battles along the way, some of them epic. Shouting matches that escalated into something more, and angry exits that left both men wondering if there’d be reconciliation, at times.

But the plan helped Phelps, a genetic wonder with a body built for the sport, get to places no one else ever imagined. As a 19-year-old at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he nearly equaled Mark Spitz’s unbreakable record of seven gold medals, finishing just shy with six gold and two silver. But four years later, he smashed it with an epic 8-for-8 performance in Beijing, propelling his sport to never-before-seen levels of popularity.

Straying off course

But in the wake of that fame, he found trouble. Silly stuff, mostly, until he was arrested for drunken driving.

He was emotionally adrift, and it showed in his listless approach to training for the London Olympics.

Phelps was just along for the ride. He’d show up for practice sporadically, if at all. Bowman estimates he was in the pool exactly twice on a Saturday the entire four-year cycle.

Still, he won six medals at those Olympics — four of them gold — mostly on sheer talent. The signs of his lack of preparedness were there, though. He missed the podium in an Olympic event — the grueling 400 individual medley — for only the second time in his career. (The first came as a 15-year-old at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.) He also was beaten in his signature event, the 200 butterfly, by a trash-talking rival, Chad le Clos, from South Africa.

But he played it all off with a manufactured smile, and when it was over, he claimed he was going out the way he wanted. Problem was, he had no idea where he was going.

And after another drunken-driving arrest served as a wake-up call, Phelps checked into an Arizona rehab facility, where he spent 45 days and started to address some of his problems. His addiction, and his family issues, stemming in part from his tattered relationship with his father.

“When he came back, I could see how different he was,” said Canton’s Allison Schmitt, his longtime training partner and close friend. “How much stronger he was, how much he’d changed, how much his outlook had changed.”

And from there, he was determined to change the ending to his career, to find a way to make it whole. He rededicated himself to training, suffered through Bowman’s demands,

“I kind of knew when I first started coming back that it wasn’t going to be an easy process and I was going to force myself to go through pain I didn’t really want to go through,” said Phelps, who did just that and arrived Rio in the best shape of his life, in many respects.

Nicole Johnson, fiance of Michael Phelps, holds their baby Boomer, as she stands along with Phelps' mother Debbie and sister during the men's 4x100-meter medley relay final Saturday.

Once here, he conquered old foes, like Ryan Lochte, and reclaimed lost treasures, like that 200 butterfly crown — "That event was kind of like my bread-and-butter," he said — it wasn’t until the end that the 31-year-old even started to show signs of his age.

Fitting conclusion

Saturday night’s last race was a relay, and that was perfect, in Phelps’ eyes. He loved the relays at his five Olympics, and the medley is one the Americans never lose. But on this night, “we had to earn it,” said Nathan Adrian, who swam the anchor freestyle leg. It took an Olympic-record time to hold off Great Britain for the gold, and it was Phelps who’d flipped the U.S. into the lead on his third leg in the butterfly.
“This is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted,” he said.

More than anything this week, he wanted to share it all with his new family. That scene of an exhausted, exhilarated Phelps going up into the crowd to kiss his baby boy helped frame this whole comeback in the right light. And when you ask Phelps what he’s learned these last two years that’ll help him once he’s no longer swimming, he points to his rebuilt relationship with Johnson, to whom he’ll be married soon.

“We are 100 percent made for one another,” he said, “and I’m just looking forward to sharing the rest of our life together.”

As for the rest, he’ll let others decide just what his presence has meant for the sport, though the fact that he finished with 23 gold medals wasn’t lost on him. His idol, Michael Jordan, wore No. 23, and Phelps’ stated goal was always to do for the sport of swimming what Jordan had done for basketball.

But it’s not just the sport, Adrian said, “He’s influenced the entire Olympic movement. It’s so incredible, everything that he’s done.”

And now that he’s moving on, everyone is left to marvel at what he has left behind, Phelps included, as he talked at a news conference well past midnight and into Sunday, which just happens to be Father’s Day in Brazil.

"This all started with one little dream,” he said. “And it turned out pretty cool."

Twitter @JohnNiyo