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A Now-Retired Michael Phelps Recalls ‘Dream’ Career As Swimming Community Honors His Golden Legacy

By Nick McCarvel | Nov. 22, 2016, 12:54 p.m. (ET)

Michael Phelps accepts his Golden Goggles award for the 2016 Male Race of the Year at the 2016 Golden Goggle Awards at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Nov. 21, 2016 in New York City.

NEW YORK – Inside the Marriott Marquis hotel in Midtown Manhattan on Monday night, swimming fans lined the stairs and balcony of the lobby, craning their necks with one purpose in mind: Get a glimpse of Michael Phelps.

It was another stop on the farewell tour for Phelps, who no less than three times during USA Swimming’s Golden Goggle Awards made it clear – once again – he is retired from competitive swimming. For good.

“Retirement for me is just not competitively swimming,” the 31-year-old Phelps told a group of reporters, saying he is spending three days a week in the pool to stay in shape. “I’m traveling more than I ever have for appearances and vacations here and there. No more waking up at 7 a.m. if I don’t have to.”

Monday night the only thing he had to do was thank people. And there were a lot of them to thank: His wife Nicole Johnson and their baby boy, Boomer; his mother, Debbie, and his sisters, Hilary and Whitney; his coach of 20 years, Bob Bowman; his agent, Peter Carlisle; and the entire U.S. swimming community, which showered him with praise throughout the evening.

“My career has been a dream come true … and I’m looking forward to seeing the young guys continue to do this as Team USA,” Phelps said on stage at one point. “I will miss swimming with you guys, but I will always be here.”

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It feels as though Phelps has always been here for all Olympic fans. He burst onto the scene as a teenager at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, then cemented his legacy at the Athens and Beijing Games, earning eight medals at each of those Games, before adding to his historic haul in London. It was there that he said he was done – and then had second thoughts.

His success in Rio – two individual golds, three relay golds and an individual silver – brought his career total to 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold. In no surprise, he was named USA Swimming’s Male Athlete of the Year Monday, as well as the winner of the IMPACT Award, a lifetime achievement recognition, in addition to male race and relay honors.

“I’m so proud of Michael,” Missy Franklin, twice his Olympic teammate, told TeamUSA.org. “He went out on such a high note this time around. Whatever he chooses to do, I’m going to be behind him 100 percent. It was wonderful to see him love the sport again.”

That was an apparent sentiment from his teammates throughout the night. When the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle team won for relay of the year, Phelps was joined by Nathan Adrian, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held on stage. Instead of launching into a list of thank-yous, Dressel turned to Phelps.

“I just want to say a few words about Michael – greatest Olympian of all time,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“I remember at a swim meet I was 16 at the time and I got a picture with him,” Dressel explained. “Three years later, I was swimming in for him on the 400 free relay at the Rio Olympic Games, just hoping that I wouldn’t screw it up and him be mad at me for the rest of our lives. … I was so happy when you said you were going to come back because I knew it wasn’t for the gold medals, but that you wanted to leave something behind. The difference between 2012 and 2016 is night and day. The emotions you showed in Rio. I’m just so happy to see you’ve turned your life around.”

Michael Phelps, wife Nicole Johnson and their son Boomer arrive at the 2016 Golden Goggle Awards at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Nov. 21, 2016 in New York City.

Retirement so far for Phelps has left him busier than ever. He’s hopscotched around the globe, making appearances with a new sort of team around him: Nicole and six-month-old Boomer. They recently visited Beijing and the famed Water Cube where he made history in 2008, winning eight gold medals, the most in one Games.

“The biggest thing for me was the amount of emotion that came back for me” during the visit, Phelps said of the Cube. “I got to share that experience with Nicole and Boomer. I got to stand behind lanes four and six and just literally envision those races. It was wild. It brought back some tears.”

“Being in Beijing, I think it finally hit him what he accomplished while he was there,” said his wife Nicole, who spoke with TeamUSA.org.

“That was really cool for me to be a part of and see,” she added. “We got to share that with Boomer and tell him what he did. Boomer doesn’t understand, but we’re going to be able to show him the trip when he’s older so he can see. For me, it’s been incredible to watch how much he’s accomplished in the sport and how much he has been able to change things and move forward. It’s going to be really cool to watch him continue to move forward.”

Immediate plans for Phelps call for a rest period after the holidays, and a slower travel schedule. But then there is his foundation, and his push to help more kids become water safe. Franklin, Dressel and dozens of other U.S. swimmers were clear, tangible proof of his impact at the elite level, as well.

“It’ll take years before I completely comprehend everything that has gone on in my career,” Phelps said on the red carpet. “I’m just getting through 2008 right now. I have eight more years of stuff to go through and try to figure out what happened and enjoy the memories. It might take a year, or it might take five, 10, 20 years. For me to wrap my head around 28 medals, I don’t know when it will happen.”

Phelps is still swimming because he hates not being in shape. Boomer is keeping him and Nicole up at night still, and Michael says his patience is tested at times, but, “Boomer is showing more of his personality now,” he added. “It’s something new every day.”

And now, it’s something new every day for Phelps, too. These are unchartered waters, but ones that he appears to be swimming with a smile on his face. And don’t think that he’s going to be any less busy.

“I have an endless list that I have on my plate that I’m so excited to be able to tackle now that I’m retired,” Phelps said. “The next 10 years of our lives will be very exciting and very fun.”

Hopefully almost as much as the last 16 were. 

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