RIO DE JANEIRO -- When his last race was won, after he celebrated briefly with his 4x100-meter medley teammates Saturday, Michael Phelps doubled over in exhaustion and emotion behind the starting block.
“That’s really when everything started to hit me,” he said, “knowing it was the last time I’ll wear the stars and stripes in a race.”
He had tears when he raised his arms to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium crowd as he walked off the pool deck. They welled up again when the fans greeted his last step up on an Olympic podium with a roar.
“It’s not even once in a generation, it might be once in 10 generations that someone like Michael comes along,” said Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman.
Before he took his first step on an Olympic podium, the teen-aged Michael Phelps had a mantra: His goal was to win one gold medal.
It was his shield from questions about the Speedo contract he signed at 18 that guaranteed a $1 million bonus if he matched Mark Spitz’s seven golds in a single Games. It held at bay the expectations that piled high as he collected wins and world records.
We would push Phelps, the other reporters and I, trying to get him to reveal the golden goal posted on his mental marquee. He never budged.
What we didn’t fully realize then was that his goal was much more ambitious than any number could express – even numbers like the ones now on his Olympic resume.
Yet, within the Olympic medal totals that Phelps insists will be the final tallies, is a number that perfectly expresses that goal.
On Saturday, with that relay victory, Phelps won gold medal No. 23.
Phelps grew up single-mindedly driven to carry swimming to an entirely different plane in the U.S. sports consciousness, like Michael Jordan did for basketball.
“Michael Jordan has been an inspiration for me throughout my whole career,” Phelps said. “Twenty three is a special number. ... It always has been and now it will be even more special.”
Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” commercial debuted in 1991. When then 6-year-old Michael Phelps saw bottles of Gatorade in the grocery store, he would grasp one, just as Jordan did in the commercial, to see how his hand measured up.
What would become immeasurable was Phelps’ reach.
At 16, in his first meeting with his agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, Carlisle asked about his goals outside the pool. Phelps already had broken a world record and had competed at an Olympics (the Sydney 2000 Games, where he finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly, the only event he swam). But he felt overshadowed by the football and basketball players in the halls of his high school.
“I want to change the sport of swimming,” he told Carlisle.
He indisputably has.
“No matter what country you swim for, you owe a lot to Michael Phelps for opening doors and making swimming more mainstream, at least every four years,” said U.S. teammate Ryan Murphy, who set a world record in the opening backstroke leg of Saturday’s relay.
The proof is in NBC’s prime-time coverage of Olympic swimming, in the number of post-collegiate swimmers who can stay in the sport because of sponsorship opportunities, in the photos that spread across social media of wide-eyed Phelps autograph seekers turned Olympic champions (see: Katie Ledecky).
“Daring kids to dream – that’s the only reason why I’m sitting here,” Phelps said. “I was a little kid with a dream, and it turned into a couple of medals, a pretty good couple of years of swimming, and I had a blast.”
I was fortunate to be there for all 28 of those “couple of medals,” at the 2004 and 2008 Games as the lead Olympics reporter for USA TODAY, and at the 2012 and these 2016 Games as a correspondent for TeamUSA.org.
Journalism has been called “the first draft of history,” and journalists often know, in the moment, that we are indeed witnessing history. That was the case for me through every one of Phelps’ Olympic finals.
The first came 12 years, almost to the day, before his last. On Aug. 14, 2004, the opening day of the swimming competition at the Athens Games, Phelps won the 400-meter individual medley in world-record time.
The 19-year-old Phelps had his one gold medal. The history books awaited.
The snapping sounds of the arm flap/back slap that Phelps does on the starting block became a signal that something special was about to happen – and it so often did.
In the highlight reel are the head-to-head races against rivals such as Ian Thorpe, Ian Crocker and Ryan Lochte, whom Phelps would keep at the forefront of his mind during training (Phelps once posted a picture of Crocker in his bedroom) so he wouldn’t finish behind them on the world stage.
The Beijing Games, where Phelps surpassed the Spitz standard by winning eight golds, offered a dramatic miniseries, from the Jason Lezak superhuman anchor leg in the 4x100-meter freestyle to Phelps’ photo finish in the 100-meter butterfly.
The headlined drama in Phelps’ personal life sometimes offered new narratives between Games. After a DUI arrest in 2014 sent him into what he called “a downward spiral,” Phelps gave Bowman full say over his training regimen.
“I think before I was always looking for shortcuts,” Phelps said. “I kind of went through some obstacles that maybe I didn’t want to go through before.”
Now engaged and a new father, the 31-year-old Phelps won five golds and a silver in Rio.
The one shortfall in his crowning Games, his second-place finish in the 100 fly to Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, indeed had a silver lining. It ensured that with the U.S. relay victory Saturday, Phelps’ gold-medal total would stand at 23, likely for all time.
Schooling, 21, recalled meeting Phelps just before the Beijing 2008 Games, when the U.S. team held a training camp in Singapore.
“I wanted,” Schooling said, “to be like him.”
Golden goal, reached. One Olympic medal at a time.
Vicki Michaelis is the John Huland Carmical Chair of Sports Journalism & Society at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She covered six Games as the lead Olympics reporter for USA TODAY.