Already the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps is applying himself for one last chance to get his Olympic farewell right having fallen in love with swimming again. It seems a peculiar thing to say for the owner of a record 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold. Four gold medals and two silver in London in 2012 seemed a fitting enough finale to a career that peaked with Phelps’s stunning eight-gold performance in Beijing.
However Phelps knew deep down that he could have done more four years ago, and that “haunted” feeling made it impossible for his post-London retirement to stick.
“I never wanted to have that ‘what if,'” Phelps said of his decision to mount a fifth Olympic campaign in Rio de Janeiro, at the age of 31.
“This journey has been incredible. Being able to fall in love with the sport again is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I did it on my terms.”
His comeback has been far from smooth in Phelps like fashion always controversial. Disrupted by a drink-driving arrest that sparked a painful period of self-examination. Phelps has emerged stronger, his renewed relationship with his estranged father resonating even more after the birth of his own son, Boomer, with fiancee Nicole Johnson in May.
“It’s a cool thing for Nicole and I, for where we are in our lives,” Phelps said.
His relationship with long-time coach Bob Bowman endures, with Phelps voicing absolute trust in Bowman’s ability to prepare him for his last Olympic hurrah.
He has a chance to make more history as he seeks a fourth straight gold in the 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley. The only Olympians to win four consecutive titles in the same individual event are athletes Al Oerter in the discus (1956-68) and Carl Lewis in the long jump (1984-96).
And he would love to avenge his 2012 loss to South African Chad le Clos in the 200m fly, the first event Phelps ever swam in the Olympics back in Sydney 2000.
At the peak of his career, Phelps said he was out to change his sport. Despite some run-ins with authority, he was suspended for six months in 2014 after a drink-driving case. Phelps has raised swimming’s profile in America with displays of individual excellence as well as thrilling duels with the likes of Ryan Lochte and Milorad Cavic.
The US Olympic trials are one testament to his success, drawing upwards of 14,000 fans per session.
But his more lasting legacy is found in the swimmers he inspired, some of whom, like le Clos, he will race in Rio and some of whom have yet to reach the international stage.
Once the most intimidating man in the ready-room, Phelps now says he wants to mentor younger swimmers. For the first time he has been selected by his peers to serve as a captain of the US men’s team.
“I just want to be able to help some of the younger guys,” he said.
With swimming heading “in a direction I love,” Phelps says there’s “still more” for him to do.
“Do I know what that is right now? No. But I still feel that we can do more to promote this sport, even to another level than where we are right now.”
But Phelps insists he knows what his future contribution won’t include — another competitive campaign.
“This is it. This is it, no more,” he vows. “The body is done. This is my last one.”
GREATNESS BY NUMBERS
The most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals in three Olympiads.
Holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals (18, double the second highest record holders)
Holds the record for most Olympic gold medals in individual events (11)
Holds the record for most Olympic medals in individual events for a male (13)
In winning 8 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps took the record away from fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz (7) for the most first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games
At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Phelps won 4 golds and 2 silver medals, making him the most successful athlete of the Games for the third Olympics in a row.
Phelps is the long course world record holder in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley as well as the former long course world record holder in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley.