In his final year of competitive swimming, Michael Phelps further cemented his legacy as the greatest Olympian of all time, finishing his fifth Olympic Games in Rio with five gold medals and one silver. In total, that gave the 31-year-old Phelps 23 gold medals and 28 total medals for his career. But the Olympic swan song was just one part of this memorable year for Phelps.
Here’s a look at Phelps’ 16 most memorable moments from 2016:
Phelps and fiancée Nicole Johnson announced the arrival of their son, Boomer, on Phelps’ Instagram account in the spring. Boomer Robert Phelps was born at 7:21 p.m. on May 5 and instantly became one of the most recognized newborns around the world. Boomer was introduced to fans in a Facebook Live chat on May 22 and then was a mainstay at the Rio Aquatics Stadium in August, sitting on his mother’s lap for nearly every race with his trademark stars-and-stripes noise-canceling headphones.
Phelps legally married former Miss California USA Nicole Johnson on June 13 in Arizona at a backyard wedding with just five people. But the couple kept the news hush-hush until after the Rio Games. They then had a more formal beach wedding four months later in Mexico, where their son Boomer was the ring bearer and was carried down the aisle by eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt.
Phelps became the first male swimmer to make five U.S. Olympic Teams when he won the men’s 200-meter butterfly at June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in Omaha, Nebraska. He also became the oldest male Olympic Trials champion since at least 1960, which is as far back as USA Swimming’s trials statistics go. “That means the most tonight,” Phelps told reporters afterward. “With everything that's happened, being able to come back, that's probably harder than any swim I've had in my life.”
As the most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps was selected as Team USA’s flag bearer for the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Maracana Stadium. He was chosen by a vote of fellow Team USA members, becoming just the second swimmer to serve as the country’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer after Gary Hall carried the flag in 1976 in Montreal. As Phelps typically races the next day, Rio marked his first Opening Ceremony, and it was a memorable at that.
After settling for silver at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Phelps led Team USA to gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle in Rio, claiming his first medal of the 2016 Games. Phelps swam a terrific second leg of the sprint relay to give his teammates a lead they would cease to relinquish. Afterward, he told reporters: “It was crazy. I was standing on the blocks while Caeleb (Dressel) was coming in, and I honestly thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest.”
"Phelps Face" Goes Viral
Just before Phelps swam the 200-meter butterfly semifinals in Rio, he was shown on NBC’s broadcast sitting alone, hood over head and headphones in ears, staring down rival Chad le Clos of South Africa in the ready room. Immediately, the #PhelpsFace image went viral. It became a meme on social media with a life of its own, and was a hot topic of discussion by nightly entertainment shows and comedians.
Phelps climbed into the stands to kiss his 3-month-old son Boomer in Rio after winning gold in the 200-meter butterfly — the Olympic race he had circled on his calendar after coming out of retirement. Phelps had won the event at the 2004 and 2008 Games, but in 2012 he mistimed his finish in London and was edged out by South Africa’s shadowboxing Chad le Clos. This was the gold-medal revenge was what Phelps wanted the most in Rio, and it certainly showed.
With Phelps as the anchor, Team USA powered to gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle in Rio. It was the fourth straight Olympic gold medal in the event both for Phelps and for Team USA, and it came just an hour after Phelps won gold medal No. 20 of his career in the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps spent 105 seconds swimming a victory lap to end the relay after Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and Ryan Lochte helped the Americans take a commanding lead early on in the race.
Phelps added to his legacy by winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 200-meter individual medley, the first time that’s happened in Olympic history. Only four other Olympians — Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and U.S. track and field athletes Ray Ewry, Al Oerter and Carl Lewis — have four-peated in an individual event. The victory also gave Phelps his 13th individual Olympic title, breaking a first-place tie with Leonidas of Rhodes, who won 12 individual titles in the stadion, diaulos and hoplite races at the Ancient Olympic Games.
In his final individual Olympic race, Phelps was part of a historic three-way tie for silver in the men’s 100-meter butterfly, with South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, finishing just behind Joseph Schooling of Singapore. It was the first time since 2000 that Phelps did not win Olympic gold in the event, but the historic result stole the headlines, nonetheless.
Phelps closed the books on his illustrious career with — you guessed it — an Olympic gold medal. Together with Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian, Phelps helped give Team USA its ninth consecutive win in the 4x100-meter medley, dating back to the Los Angeles 1984 Games. The team clocked an Olympic-record time of 3:27.95 en route to the podium.
Following the Rio 2016 Games, a slew of awards came in for Phelps. At the Team USA Awards in Washington, D.C., he was voted Male Athlete of the Olympic Games, and then at USA Swimming’s Golden Goggle Awards in Midtown Manhattan, he walked away with four awards, including Male Athlete of the Year. He added more hardware to his crowded wall of accolades when he won FINA’s Best Male Swimmer Award and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the latter which was presented by Prince William and Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe.
Phelps retired for the second time following the Rio Games, and this time, it seems to be for real. The most decorated Olympian of all time pulled out of the drug-test pool, making him officially ineligible to compete for Team USA. To everyone who asks if he’s really retired, the answer, for now at least, is a resounding yes.
While hopscotching around the globe following his retirement, Phelps and his family visited the famed Water Cube in Beijing where he made history in 2008, winning eight gold medals, the most in one Games. Phelps posted on Instagram: “So many emotions while walking through the water cube with my family!! I’m sorry @boomerphelps and @mrs.nicolephelps for all the tears."
After finishing the Rio Games with five gold medals and one silver medal, Phelps was the most searched athlete on Google this year, and third behind only Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton among the most-searched people globally. U.S. gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Ryan Lochte also made it into the top-10 list of most searched people in 2016.
Phelps was featured on his 12th Sports Illustrated last week, and this time he graced the cover wearing all 23 of his Olympic gold medals. It’s the first time Phelps — who has more medals, gold medals, and individual gold medals than any other Olympian — has posed with all 23. The venerable magazine first featured Phelps on its cover in 2004, using the 19-year-old swimmer to highlight its Olympic preview coverage from that year.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.