NEW YORK – For one last time in his career, Michael Phelps hoisted gold above his head in a room full of adoring swimming fans.
Monday night in Midtown Manhattan, USA Swimming held its annual Golden Goggle Awards and Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, walked away a big winner once again, capturing four awards, including Male Athlete of the Year.
“My career has been a dream come true,” Phelps told the audience inside a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis.
It was a dream-come-true night for many of the Olympians who helped Team USA win an astounding 33 medals at the Rio Games, 16 of them gold. Katie Ledecky, who won three of those gold medals in individual races in Brazil, was named Female Athlete of the Year.
“I hit all of my goals that I set for Rio, but that doesn’t stop me from setting some new goals,” Ledecky, 19, told TeamUSA.org earlier in the night. “I have some short- and long-term goals that I’m going to be working towards over the next four years.”
It was the hard work of the last four years – and beyond – that was being honored on stage by host Rowdy Gaines and a series of presenters that included journalist Katie Couric, racecar driver Jimmie Johnson and Olympic swimming legends Amanda Beard, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak and more.
“Who would have thought,” said 50-meter freestyle Olympic champion Anthony Ervin, setting himself up for a joke. “The perseverance award going to a sprinter!”
The 35-year-old Ervin’s win in the perseverance category was more a nod to the 16 years that separated his gold medals in the event, between Sydney in 2000 and Rio in August.
While Phelps was the winner of the Male Race of the Year (his win in the 200-meter butterfly in Rio), it was Simone Manuel who was given the award for Female Race of the Year, her historic tie for gold in the 100-meter freestyle, a win which made her the first African-American woman to win individual swimming gold at the Olympics.
“I’d like to thank the people who came before me, who are the true heroes,” said the 20-year-old Manuel. “They have inspired me to stay in the sport … and do what I’ve done. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Lilly King, who was outspoken about more stringent doping control needed in swimming during the Games, won for Breakout Performer of the Year. Olympic team captain Elizabeth Beisel won the first-ever Team Leadership & Inspiration Award, while Phelps was given the IMPACT Award – a lifetime achievement award of sorts. Dave Durden of California Aquatics – who had five Olympians in Rio – won for coach of the year, while the Olympic men’s 4x100 freestyle team took Relay Performance of the Year, a team that included Phelps, Nathan Adrian, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held.
While there were some powerful words from the award winners and emotional moments on stage, the night was mixed with laughter, as well. At one point, some Olympians participated in a USA Swimming version of the “Family Feud” TV game show, broken into teams named the Sharks and Minnows.
“Name the top things swimmers do in their downtime at a swim meet,” was the first category. Answers included eating, listening to music and taking naps.
The Golden Goggles also served as the biggest gathering of the nation’s best swimmers in over three months, since the U.S. team of 47 athletes (including 31 rookies) won those 33 medals for one of its most successful outings in Olympic history.
“This was supposed to be a transition Olympics for Team USA,” said the host Gaines, a three-time gold medalist at the Olympics himself and longtime NBC commentator. “But instead, we were treated to something special.”
Chatter early in the evening on the red carpet was of memories in Rio, but also of rest and recuperation in the time since. Missy Franklin said she didn’t get into the pool for nearly six weeks, the longest time away from swimming in her career.
“I needed to step away from the water,” said Franklin, who took yoga, spin and barre classes during her time off. “The most important thing for me was to make sure that I was doing it for myself and no one else. “(When I got) back in the pool, I felt like, ‘Wow, I really missed this!’ Those feelings were really important for me.”
Having won four golds in London, Franklin walked away with only a relay gold in Rio, having failed to make individual finals in the 200 freestyle or 200 backstroke.
King (Indiana University), Ledecky (Stanford), Manuel (Stanford) and Ryan Murphy (Cal) all have their focus set on the collegiate season, along with a host of other Olympic swimmers.
“My plan is to do the college season and from there I will start training for world championship trials,” said Murphy, known as “the backstroke king,” having won both the 100- and 200-meter events in that discipline in Rio. “I’m definitely going to go for 2020. I’m only 21 right now. I’m really happy with this summer, but there are other things that I want to do.”
King is the most prominent member of the U.S. team that will go to the short course world championships in Canada next month, Dec. 6-11.
“Hopefully I get a couple of world records” out of it, said King. “I would like to sweep the breaststroke events. I’m swimming six or seven events. That’s a big haul for me. It will be pretty crazy.”
The attention around Phelps was rather crazy as he made his way through the lobby of the hotel after the red carpet for the event. Fans hollered congratulations and asked for selfies. He was accompanied by his mom, Debbie, as well as wife Nicole Johnson and son Boomer.
“After 2012, to be able to go through some of the things that I did and come back, I look at this as probably one of my greatest races,” said Phelps about his win for the 200-meter butterfly. “It’s very special to be able to end my career by winning the 200 fly. I said it four years ago, yes, but I really am done. Being a part of this team, it was one of the coolest parts of it for me.”
Later, on stage with Phelps for the relay award, Nathan Adrian joked: “Come on, everyone, say it with me: ‘Four more years!’”
This is the end, it’s clear, for Phelps, however, as he was overtly emotional in his receiving of the IMPACT Award from Dick Ebersol of NBC Olympics. He thanked his mom, sisters and longtime coach Bob Bowman, but also joked: “When I first started swimming, I didn’t want to get my face wet. So, it’s been a long journey.”
Swimmers basked in the breaks that they had taken, Murphy and Manuel both saying that they – like Franklin – put down their cap and goggles for much-needed time away. Manuel said she hasn’t thought much about her performance Rio, however, a similar approach as King.
“I never really think about my swims,” said King. “I more think about Maya (DiRado’s) 200 backstroke or Simone’s 100 free. Those are the things that really stood out to me.”
And like Murphy, many swimmers have 2020 on their minds, even if it’s in the very, very back. “I would love to go,” Franklin said, then adding: “That’s very long term.”
Ervin, who at 35 became the oldest gold medalist in Olympic swimming history, also has an eye fixed on Tokyo 2020, but not in the way you might expect.
Does he think about it? He was asked.
“Of course, but maybe not in the way that you or anyone reading might recognize,” he responded. “I just have to keep on keeping on. I have to keep on expanding and growing the way I’m wont to do. I can’t stall or stale. I cannot let myself fall into doing the things that I know work, but (instead) continue to expand. … I have struggled a bit with all of the travel since Rio and working out. … I need to be in touch with my body. The plan is to get that back in the next six months.”
While Phelps was male athlete of the year for a third time in a row, it was Ledecky’s fourth consecutive prize. She took a moment to recognize Debbie Meyer, who was on stage with her having presented the award with Katie Couric. Meyer was the last woman to win the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles – at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – until Ledecky did so this year.
History stood on the stage – both past and present – and Ledecky offered a nod to that.
“Debbie sent me video messages throughout the week of swimming (in Rio) rooting me on,” Ledecky said. “That’s what this family is all about. She was cheering me on to win those three events and I didn’t want to let her down. I knew I could do it because she believed in me and she did it a long time ago, too.”
As for the winner of Swimming Family Feud? It was the Minnows over the Sharks, but just barely.