RIO DE JANEIRO -- Michael Phelps climbed out of the pool after practice Tuesday night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio to awaiting news: He was Team USA’s pick for Opening Ceremony flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The smile that spread across his face was as wide as the 50-meter pool he stood beside.
“I shed a few tears,” Phelps said, breaking into another smile Wednesday at his pre-Olympic press conference. “This has to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
Thirty-one and back for a fifth Olympic Games four years after he said he was done with swimming for good, Phelps will get to do something for the very first time come Friday in Rio in attending the ceremony, not to mention with the flag in his hands.
It’s a distinction he dreamed of when he was a little kid, watching the Olympics on TV and hoping one day to be there to compete. Now – as the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, including 18 golds – he has been named the U.S. flag bearer.
“The chance to get to know not only your teammates, but athletes from around the world, it’s an honor. What better venue to do it?” Phelps said.
And what better person to do it? Phelps acknowledged – and it’s not lost on Olympic fans – that there are plenty of amazing stories, paths and histories on the 554-member U.S. Olympic team, but after the U.S. swimming team nominated him as its pick for flag bearer, Nathan Adrian took the choice to fellow U.S. captains and presented his case.
“There were a lot of other people that were very, very deserving of this honor, but Michael is the one that the athletes chose,” Adrian explained. “I was really stressed out; I felt like he really deserves it.”
So does Missy Franklin.
“It just feels so right,” a beaming Franklin said of the choice of Phelps as flag bearer. “It feels so right to have the most decorated Olympian of all time being our flag bearer and leading us. And outside of the pool someone who has overcome so much internally and externally and shared that with everyone. It has shown people what an inspiration he is and what a light he is. That’s what USA is all about, that’s what being American is all about.”
Phelps’ stardom in the sport was evident Wednesday, when hundreds of media packed the Samba press room (the Games’ biggest press conference venue) to hear him speak. It will be his first time at Opening Ceremony, having always skipped it in the past due to competing the next day in the 400 individual medley.
Perhaps the choice not to swim the event after his 2014 comeback was the first aligning of the stars to the honor he was bestowed with on Tuesday night.
“To be nominated by your peers, it’s a pretty awesome feeling,” Phelps said. “It’s a little challenging to put into words (how I feel). There has only been one swimmer in the past, Gary Hall (in 1976), and I didn’t think another would get it again. It’s just a cool feeling and absolutely an amazing, amazing, amazing honor.”
The “congrats” were innumerous from reporters as they began their questions Wednesday, as well. Even the press wanted to wish well the greatest swimmer of all time.
“There’s no better person than Michael to honor us. I’m really excited,” Ryan Lochte said. Then he joked: “I kind of want to steal that jacket.”
“He’s touched everyone on this Olympic team and everyone at home (in the U.S.),” Lochte continued, before adding that he’s not convinced of Phelps’ retirement.
“For me, Michael has given me something to aspire to be,” Franklin added. “With the amount of attention that he has brought to the sport, and him teaching kids to swim, that’s the most important thing in my mind. He’s had such a big impact.”
“The first thing people ask when you tell them you’re an Olympian is, ‘Have you met Michael Phelps?’” concluded Adrian of Phelps’ continued reach.
Phelps appears to be a grown man finally settled into his role as not only a leader in the pool, but out of it as well. He made his Olympic debut at the age of 15 in 2000, and will participate in his fifth Games when he dips into the pool in the opening days.
The monstrous impact he’s had is starting to sink in for himself, as well.
“I was having a conversation with my agent yesterday about how things I’ve done in my career have begun to settle in over the last two years more than they ever have,” he said. “This time around will be more emotional than any other swim meet.”
Phelps talked at length about his son, Boomer, watching dad’s first Olympics (he was born in May) and that the four-hour wait to carry the flag doesn’t daunt him, either.
“I said it’s a no-brainer,” Phelps explained of a conversation with coach Bob Bowman. “I told him, ‘I have to do it. I want to do it.’”
Will coach Bowman, who sat alongside Phelps Wednesday in Rio, stay at his side for the flag carrying too?
“No. I’ll be watching on TV, though,” Bowman said, smiling. “I’ll be trying to make sure he’s off his feet as much as possible before.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be texting me non-stop,” Phelps assured.