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By John Lohn
LONDON, August 4. NO more dominating victories. No more clip-them-at-the-wall triumphs. No more medal ceremonies. No more celebratory strolls of the pool deck. No more Michael Phelps. No more poster boy, the man who raised the profile of his sport like no one before him. It's something swimming is going to have to accept.
The greatest athlete in Olympic lore said goodbye on Saturday night. His fourth Games came to an end in fitting fashion, the United States earning the gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay with Phelps handling the butterfly leg. History will show Phelps covered the final 100 meters of his career in 50.73. History will show his final gold medal was assisted by Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen and Nathan Adrian. History will show the typically stoic Phelps getting choked up the final time a medal was placed around his neck, and during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
The Phelps story started in 2000 when a 15-year-old boy introduced himself to the world at the United States Olympic Trials with a second-place finish in the 200 butterfly. A month later, he was the fifth-place finisher at the Sydney Games. A year later, he was a world-record holder. These were the signals of a career developing like no other before seen. And twelve years later, with a haul of 22 Olympic medals in his vault, he is an unprecedented athlete.
“I've been taking it all in more than in the past,” Phelps said of his London Games. “I've been thinking about the last times. My last prelim. My last individual race. My last time racing against someone.”
When a chapter closes, or in Phelps' case a best-selling book, we're conditioned to savor the final moments. Phelps has followed that path at the London Games, while continuing to compete at a high level. He leaves the Aquatic Centre with six medals — four gold and two silver. His career mark now sits at 18 gold medals, twice as many as any other individual in the 116 years of the Modern Olympics.
This Olympiad did not start in Phelpsian fashion, a fourth-place performance in the 400 individual medley eliciting questions whether he would doggy-paddle to the finish. But his final four races all delivered gold medals, a fitting way for the 27-year-old to finish his career. And he swears this will be the end. There will be no comeback for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Count on it.
Before Phelps, especially his eight-medal take at the 2004 Games in Athens, swimming was an every-fourth-year phenomenon. Fans would tune into the Olympics, get into the storylines for a week, then forget about the sport for 1,400-plus days. Phelps changed that. No, swimming is not a mainstream sport. Never will be. Yet, it is much more recognizable.
NBC now televises the World Championships. It shows the United States Nationals. An individual can't eat at Subway without seeing Phelps in some sort of advertisement. Average Joes know the names of Ryan Lochte, Phelps' chief rival, and Missy Franklin, and that's a result of Phelps elevating the profile of the sport.
Even bigger, Phelps has generated considerable growth for swimming in the United States. After he won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, the boost in USA Swimming membership reached double-digit percentage points, the male demographic seeing the greater surge. For the past decade, generating growth has been Phelps' focus. It's fair to say he has achieved that goal.
“Michael has done what he wanted to do,” said his coach Bob Bowman, who has mentored Phelps for 16 years. “He's affected the sport of swimming.”
In generating growth, Phelps also created a mine field which he had to delicately navigate. After his Beijing exploits, he had no obligation to return for another Olympiad. Nor did he have anything left to prove. Really, he set himself up — as unfair as it might be — for failure. Outside of the sport, there were going to be questions why he couldn't be perfect again. The answer: Beijing was a perfect meet, which likely will never be replicated.
From a competitive standpoint, he had to deal with opposition which was significantly better than 2008. That was Phelps' fault, albeit in a good way. He showed the world what was capable, forcing others to enhance their training and performances if they desired any chance to knock him off. Lochte took up the challenge in the 400 individual medley, and got the job done. South African Chad Le Clos, who gushes over Phelps, beat his idol in the 200 butterfly.
“Watching the 2004 Olympics, I saw a man who had six golds,” Le Clos said. “I thought, 'How cool is that?' For someone to have that sacrifice and discipline to win a gold medal every day was the most unbelievable thing ever. I've idolized him ever since.”
The Michael Phelps Show is officially off the air. Because his contributions to the sport won't soon be forgotten, syndication will follow. His races will be played over and over, a reminder of his greatness. But the wonder of live-feed Phelps will be missed. When he stepped onto the blocks, history was always possible. Now, that's all he is.
“I've been able to do all I wanted,” Phelps said. “I put my mind to different goals and was able to achieve them. Together, Bob (Bowman) and I managed everything. If you can say that, there's no need to keep going.”
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