As Phelps’ Road Comes to End, Enjoy the Ride

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Column By John Lohn

LONDON, England, July 28. THROUGH the years, we've come to expect a handful of constants with Michael Phelps. Among them: Olympic gold medals. World-record performances. Come-from-behind victories. Phelps, too, has been known to deliver — thanks to his media savvy — canned catch phrases. They might not be overly engaging, but no one can argue their consistency.

Over the last month, Phelps has added a new clich? to his press-conference arsenal, one which sums up what he's trying to accomplish at his fourth and final Olympiad. Already the greatest swimmer and Olympian in history, the 27-year-old has nothing left to prove. Consequently, he views his presence in London as such: “How many toppings can I put on top of the sundae.”

A look at the Phelps portfolio reveals his current sundae to be 16-scoops high, with 14 helpings of the gold-medal flavor and a pair of bronze. At the 30th Olympiad, Phelps will attempt to finish off his dessert with seven toppings, one for each of the events he will contest at the London Aquatic Centre. Whether he goes for cherries, sprinkles or nuts, it would be wise for fans to enjoy the show, which kicked off Saturday morning with the preliminaries of the 400 individual medley.

Incidentally, Phelps narrowly squeaked into the championship final of the distance medley, taking the eighth and final position. Whether that is a sign of struggles to come remains to be seen. This column, though, is not about that performance. It's about the big picture and Phelps' impending farewell to the sport.

Yes, Ryan Lochte has shot up the sport's totem pole, becoming No. 1A to Phelps' No. 1. And, if Lochte puts together the type of competition he believes he's capable of packaging, he could move into the No. 1 slot and bump Phelps, on his way out the door, to No. 2. But when the overall scene is analyzed and impact is taken into account, Phelps stands alone. Hopefully, that status is appreciated — regardless of what shakes out in London.

While Phelps is scheduled to contest 14 races during his eight days of action, a sense of nostalgia has already engulfed the sport. Soon, this guy who first wowed us as a 15-year-old at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis will be gone. We're sure to see him in ongoing commercials and highlights will always be available. Missing, though, will be the excitement that builds on a live basis when Phelps steps onto the blocks. At major competitions, but especially the Olympic Games, there was always that tingle: What will he do next?

Even Phelps has admitted to experiencing a bit of nostalgia during the leadup to this Olympiad. Although he is focused on his goals and work that remains, Phelps and coach Bob Bowman have admitted to enjoying the ride from the Olympic Trials to the Games. Good for them. They deserve to appreciate their run, and they will obviously be able to look back even more fondly in the months and years ahead.

“I have had moments,” Phelps said of his nostalgia during a pre-meet press conference. “I wouldn't say I got choked up, but these are the last moments I will have in my career. There will be a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts in the next week.”

No one will argue swimming's rank among the other sports admired by the American public. It rates, and will continue to do so, behind plenty of endeavors which capture the interest of the United States population. Still, Phelps has become a household name, and has made swimming a sport which is discussed more than every four years. He has opened the door for better financial opportunities for his countrymen. Perhaps no one has benefited more than Lochte, who has followed Phelps into the mainstream conversation and boasts his own national identity, including spots in Gillette and Gatorade ads.

It's not to say Lochte hasn't earned what he's gotten. As the World Swimmer of the Year in 2010 and 2011, his accomplishments in the pool speak loudly. Nonetheless, Phelps is the guy who made it possible for swimmers to garner publicity from more than merely swimming fans. He's the guy who really made it possible to earn a living as a professional swimmer.

What will Phelps do in his final go-round at the biggest five-ring circus in the world? Really, his efforts could go a few ways. It's unlikely he'll be perfect again, so don't expect seven gold medals from the Baltimore native. Do expect, however, a hefty medal haul, along with at least a few more special moments to add to the Phelps legacy.

Phelps will leave these Games as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, as he needs only three medals — of any color — to pass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most medals of all-time. Latynina won 18 medals over three Olympiads. If Phelps earns a podium place in all seven of his events, his total will reach 23, a number that likely won't be matched — ever.

“I can control this myself,” Phelps said of his individual focus. “I am going to get in the water and race as hard as I can and if anything happens, it happens. When I retire, it will mean a lot more.”

So, here we are, the beginning of the end, as the clich? goes. The hourglass on Michael Phelps' career is quickly spilling sand into its bottom half. As time ticks away and his remaining races dwindle, focus in on Phelps and what he has achieved. Take a mental picture of his perfect form. Remember him standing on the top of the medals stand. Recall the evolution of a teenage phenom into the greatest performer this sport has ever seen, and likely will ever see. Basically, savor the flavor as Phelps tops off his magnificent sundae.

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