Gold No 23 for Phelps but might he be tempted by 25?
Always leave them wanting more. Like any great showman, Michael Phelps timed his exit to perfection here at Rio by claiming Olympic gold medal No 23, the shirt number of his idol Michael Jordan, and the fifth of these Games in the men’s medley relay on Saturday night. As Bob Bowman, his long term-coach, put it there will never be another Phelps, “he’s too special”.
The scale of his achievements need some processing. The 31-yearold has taken a chainsaw to a forest of records. Most decorated Olympian, most golds, most medals, 39 world records, only swimmer to have won the same event in four Olympics; even Leonidas of Rhodes’s 2,000-year record of winning 12 individual titles was felled.
“I honestly don’t know when I will get my head around it,” Phelps said. “It’s insane. This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming and try to do something no one else has done. It is pretty cool. I have lived a dream come true.
“Being able to look back at my career and say that we have been able to accomplish everything we wanted. It’s been a challenge getting back to this point but this is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted. I couldn’t be happier.”
Although he has emphasised over and over again that this would be his last competitive race, his protestations are falling on deaf ears. Britain’s James Guy, who swam the final butterfly leg in the lane next to Phelps, said: “I think he wants 25 golds and he’s got 23. I think he’ll want two more.”
Of course, there is good reason for such scepticism. Near identical promises were made at London 2012 and duly broken. The difference this time is that Phelps is at peace with himself. Whereas four years ago his defeat by Chad le Clos in the 200 metres butterfly gnawed away at him, this time he happily accepted standing on the second rung of the podium hand in hand with Le Clos and Laszlo Cseh after his threeway tie in the 100m butterfly.
So the man who has changed the face of the sport has gone, but Phelps says others will become new standard-bearers.
“You have got a lot of exciting swimmers out there,” Phelps said. “You have people like Katie Ledecky, Adam Peaty and [Ryan] Murphy from all over the world. That’s something that’s incredible about the sport.” Ledecky seems likeliest to claim his mantle. The 19-year-old became the first woman in 48 years to sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events as well as claiming a gold and silver in the relays. Yet she will be just another student when she enrols at Stanford University, forgoing the possibility of earning millions from turning professional. “I’m only 19,” Ledecky said. “I think down the road, I would love to be a pro swimmer. But first and foremost, I want to get a really great education and have the opportunities that collegiate swimming brings.”
Hand on heart: Phelps’s last gold