LONDON – After the eighth day, after his fourth Olympic Games, after his 22nd medal and his 18th gold, Michael Phelps rested.
That is the sum of his case for his place in Olympic history, which he will let judge whether he has earned the title of “Greatest Olympian."
“I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted,” he said Sunday, after touching the Olympic wall one last time, in the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter medley relay victory. “I’ve been able to put my mind to the goals I wanted to achieve, and (coach) Bob (Bowman) and I have been able to somehow manage to do every single thing.
“I think if you can say that about your career, there’s no need to move forward. Time for other things.”
In his last race, Phelps swam a fastest-in-the-field, 50.73-second 100-meter butterfly leg that gave the U.S. men the lead for good and kept alive their undefeated record in the Olympic medley relay.
The U.S. won in three minutes, 29.35 seconds, nearly two seconds ahead of second-place Japan. Australia was third.
Minutes before, the U.S. women set a new world record of three minutes, 52.05 seconds while winning their first Olympic medley relay since 2000.
Such invincibility served as a fitting exclamation point for Phelps’ Olympic career.
He was less untouchable in London than he was while winning a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. But he still put his stamp on these Games, winning four gold medals, including individual titles in the 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter butterfly, and two silvers in seven events.
“I think, in some ways, it might have been Michael’s best Olympics,” U.S. men’s head Olympic coach Gregg Troy said. “The way he went out with the IM and the butterfly -- the back-to-back swims -- then coming back for the relay. To see him finish like that, in style, is tremendous. I’m happy for him. It’s pretty obvious he was happy too.”
Phelps’ smile was wider, his awareness of everyone and everything around him much greater than it had been at previous Games.
“It just seems like he’s really here to enjoy the Games and love the sport and performing,” U.S. teammate Dana Vollmer said.
The normally reserved Phelps spoke during a team meeting before the Olympics, saying that, for him, the Games are not about the medals.
“Here’s a guy who’s got 14 gold medals before we went into these Games and he said to the team, ‘I’ll never remember the 14 medals, but what I’ll remember is the card games, the laughs, the jokes, the fun things, the conversations that you have,’” said Brendan Hansen, who swam in the medley relay with Phelps, along with Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian.
On Sunday, while warming up for the relay, Phelps had a conversation with Bowman, his coach since he was 11, that Bowman said he will remember “as long as I live.”
“I said to Bob, ‘You know, I’ve looked up to Michael Jordan my whole life because he’s done something that nobody else has ever done and he is the greatest basketball player to ever play the game,’” Phelps said. “I said, ‘You know what, I’ve been able to become the best swimmer of all time.’ I said, ‘We got here together.’ And I thanked him.”
When Phelps climbed out of the pool, Bowman told him, “That’s not fair.”
“I said, what’s not fair about it? He goes, ‘You were in the pool.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, my tears could hide behind my goggles. Yours were streaming down your face,’” Phelps said.
Phelps’ last Olympics got off to an inauspicious start, with a fourth-place finish in an event he had once ruled, the 400-meter individual medley. But rather than send him reeling, Bowman said that result relieved any pressure to try to repeat the perfection of Beijing.
“We were just saying, ‘Well, we might as well enjoy it. Doesn’t look like it’s going to go too well,’” said Bowman, with a laugh.
Phelps also had to settle for silvers in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay and the 200-meter butterfly – an event he had not lost at an Olympics or world championships since 2001 -- before closing out his farewell Games with three straight victories.
After it was over, FINA, swimming’s international governing body, gave him a trophy inscribed with the words “Michael Phelps” and “The Greatest Olympian of All Time.”
Such a proclamation is sure to stir debate. Bowman, of course, said there is “no doubt.”
“Because not only is it the number, it's the quality,” he said. “Eighteen out of 22 gold medals? …I just think the quality of it is so great, nobody can match it.”
Not up for debate is the effect Phelps had on swimming.
“He really has opened up our sport and let the world know that swimming is a sport too,” said Allison Schmitt, who trains with Phelps and whose relay gold Sunday was her fifth medal of the London Games.
Another medley relay member, Missy Franklin, remembers meeting Phelps at age 13 – just four years ago – at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and being “in awe.”
In London, she has been a breakout star, winning two individual golds, two relay golds and five medals overall. With her versatility and potential, she could someday challenge Phelps’ all-time Olympic medal mark.
“I don’t think his shoes will ever be filled,” she said. “I think his footsteps are just huge. But hopefully I can kind of make little paths right next to his.”
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.