(L-R) Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, Chad Guy Bertrand le Clos of South Africa, Michael Phelps and Joseph Schooling of Singapore celebrate after the medal ceremony for the men's 100-meter butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Aug. 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Sixteen years after Michael Phelps was a gangly 15-year-old in Sydney, skin and bones and barely 170 pounds sopping wet, the best swimmer of a generation – of all time – finished his individual Olympic career in an unfamiliar place: Second.
It wasn’t the fairytale finish for the greatest swimmer ever. He already has 22 golds, four of them here. He already is Mr. Swimming. He already is a household name, not only in the U.S. but one that is familiar worldwide.
He’s also the guy that inspired a whole new generation of swimmers, swimmers like Katie Ledecky, but also swimmers like Joseph Schooling, the 21-year-old who beat him on Friday night to earn Singapore its first-ever gold medal at the Olympics – in any sport.
“I think growing up, most swimmers idolized Michael,” Schooling said. “He’s the greatest. He’s accomplished so much in his career. It’s only fitting to idolize someone like that. I just won my first Olympic gold medal, so I can’t imagine 22 – that’s out of world. If it wasn’t for Michael, I don’t think I could have gotten to this point. I wanted to be like him as a kid. A lot of this goes to Michael. He’s the reason why I wanted to be a better swimmer.”
A lot of a lot goes to Phelps. He has been the cornerstone of Olympic coverage in the U.S. the last 12 years, including his record-setting eight golds in Beijing when he was at his peak, a master of his craft with the Olympics as his canvas.
Schooling’s win over Phelps denied him winning an Olympic event four Games running for the second night in a row. Thursday he was successful in achieving as much, outdistancing the pack in the 200 IM to go back-to-back-to-back-to-back for gold No. 22, having won that event in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
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But Friday there was a kid inspired by him, who had worked up enough courage to ask him for a picture at the age of 13 when Phelps was on an acclimatization trip before the Beijing Games, young Schooling not even confident enough to smile when standing next to his idol.
This is Phelps’ work: He helped make the kid who triumphed over him, encouraged hundreds, if not thousands, of swimmers to do the one thing he had denied the world of for years and years: Beat him.
“There was nothing I could do,” Phelps said plainly of Schooling’s schooling of him. “It is what it is. Last night I got the most sleep I have gotten the whole meet. I slept nine or 10 hours. But hats off to Joe. That was a hell of a race from him. I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses over the next four years.”
This is Phelps the elder statesman, who smiled to his left and his right as he joined Schooling and Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, two longtime rivals, in the medal-winners’ press conference. It was le Clos and Cseh who tied Phelps for second place, an unprecedented three-way tie for silver.
“It’s wild, it’s really wild,” was all Phelps could manage to say on how things worked out.
Saturday night Phelps will finish his Olympic career in full – this time for certain, he promises – as part of the U.S. team for the 4x100 medley. Friday night was his alone in the pool, even if he wasn’t the gold-medal winner.
As he made his way around the pool with his silver around his neck – just the second individual Olympic silver of his career, by the way – with Schooling by his side, the two chatted like old friends. Schooling said it was the most nervous he had been all night. What to say to an idol? An idol you just beat?
“I just told him, ‘This is crazy! I don’t know how to feel right now,’” Schooling said. “He said, ‘I know.’ He’s been through it all. Being alongside him, I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life.”
For most of those watching at home, however, they’ll cherish what Phelps has given them. From Sydney to Athens to Beijing to London to Rio, his Olympic greatness has stretched across five cities and four continents, somehow never stopping in the U.S. but forever hovering over a nation in awe of a guy who can fly – inside of a swimming pool.
But silver… That’s how it ends for him as an individual swimmer at the Olympics? Silver?
“It’s all I could ask for,” said a smiling Phelps, who appeared as satisfied as one can be with that color of medal. “It was fun. A silver medal? Add one of those to the collection. And I’ll get ready for the relay tomorrow.”
Then came the questions about 2020. “Michael, are you coming back for Tokyo?” “Michael, did you hear what Ryan Lochte said?” “You did it after London… don’t you want to do it again?”
“No,” was the simple response from Phelps.
“I’m not going four more years and I’m standing by that,” he continued. “I’ve been able to do everything I have ever put my mind to in this sport. I’ve been in this sport for 24 years and I’m happy with how things finished. That’s why I came back after ’12; I didn’t want to have any ‘what ifs’ in 20 years. That’s why I’m happy now. Nobody likes to lose, but I’m proud of Joe. He obviously swam the best race. I’m ready to retire and I’m happy about it. I’m in a better state of mind than I was four years ago. I want to watch Boomer grow up.”
At this point, then, the next individual Phelps we’ll see in an Olympic pool is Boomer, who is only months old. Maybe 2032, like dad, just a teen? Or perhaps 2036? Swimming fans are already dreaming such big dreams.
And that’s why Phelps said he continued the way he did: To inspire. He wanted to be an athlete who little kids could admire and dream about being. It worked for Schooling, clearly. Phelps hopes it can work for others, too.
“I wanted to change the sport of swimming and that’s what I had the chance to do,” he said, reflecting poetically in press. “I dared kids to dream. That’s the only reason I am sitting here. I was a little kid with a dream. It turned into a couple of medals and I had a blast. The more kids that I can help become more safe but also not be afraid to know that the sky is the limit.”
Laszlo and le Clos are two contemporaries, however – two guys that Phelps has shared history with and a past of rivalry and you-can’t-beat-me swimming. The three of them clasped hands before they stepped onto the podium, almost awkwardly, climbing up for silver together. It was an odd moment of solidarity in a sport that puts people – literally – in lanes, siloing them from one another. These three guys are lifelong friends, another moment to bond them beyond the pool.
“Laszlo and I have had just as long as history almost as Ryan and I,” Phelps explained. “He and I have been through a lot of IMs together and a lot of 200 flys. It’s a wild ending to the story… for all three of us to be on the silver-medal podium together.”
So this is it, Phelps says, and we (mostly) believe him. (Wait, do you believe him? Make your own call.) But even without gold, he created more history in one final individual race. It was his 27th Olympic medal, having already collected 22 golds, including four at what has been a glistening Games for him.
Friday he came from behind in the 100 fly, surging in the second half of the race to finish second, his body exploding out of the water, his goggled face that the American sporting public has come to know so well heaving for air as he went from wall to wall to wall. It’s a visual we’ll all surely miss. This Olympics, it’s been the Phelps face and the obsession over cupping and Michael kissing Boomer and tears as the anthem played and one last collective “Oooh” and “Aaah” from the American public.
But isn’t it so deserved?
“What am I going to do?” Phelps asked back when he was queried on what’s next. “I’m going to travel and work some. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and spending time with Boomer and Nicole. I have a couple weeks or maybe a couple of months that I’m not going to do much. I have a very busy schedule… I’m getting married at the end of the year.”
Rio has not been Beijing 2008 when Phelps went golden eight times over, but four years after he said in London that that was it, that he could swim no more, he’s actually proven himself quite wrong. His passion for the sport drove him back into the pool, and he arrived in Rio last week with a sort of youthful exuberance: He was 15 again, the same kid who arrived in Sydney Olympic Park, wide-eyed and with an idea: “I want to change this sport.”
“It’s been amazing to watch what he’s done, he’s inspired all of us,” said Katie Ledecky, who set another world record and won her own gold – number five – Friday night.
“He inspired us when we were really young. We’ve always looked up to him. I think his impact is going to be felt in the sport for many years to come. People keep asking me, ‘How will you carry the torch for the U.S. when he’s gone?’ But look at our success this week. USA Swimming has a lot to look forward to, not just me.”
You can’t ping all of that to Michael Phelps, but a good portion of it you can. Silver was fitting for him Friday night: He’s done all he needs to do in the pool. There is one more race for him to swim, two more laps, 100 meters. And then?
And then Phelps can walk away on his own two feet knowing he’s accomplished everything he wanted to. That’s history.