Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. Of that, I have no doubt.
As for Phelps’ latest retirement, I’ll believe it when I don’t see it. Or, more exactly, when I don’t see him at the 2020 Olympics. Until then, I’m dubious.
Phelps’ fifth Summer Olympics came to a close late Saturday night. Once again, he was a star among stars. His medal totals are so high that even Phelps calls them “insane” and “mind-blowing.” Many athletes spend a lifetime trying to win one gold medal. Phelps ends these Olympics with 28 overall medals, an astounding 23 of them gold. He likes the symmetry of that “23” number, since he has hero-worshipped Michael Jordan since he was a kid.
“This is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted,” Phelps said early Sunday morning. “I couldn’t be happier.”
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But will Phelps really stay gone this time around? He has talked fondly about counting down his races and warm-downs throughout these Olympics, but he did exactly the same thing in London in 2012. He waved at everyone at the pool and mouthed “Thank you!” over and over after winning his final gold in a relay Saturday night, but that gave me a strong feeling of deja vu as well.
Get ready for a repeat
Back in 2012, Phelps offered several vague reasons as to why he was going to retire, often saying something like: “I don’t want to be still doing this when I’m 30.”
What he really wanted then was a break from the grind, which is and was perfectly understandable. So Phelps took one, and then he had a lot of trouble with alcohol once again, and then he went to rehab, and then he returned to the sport.
I think all of that – except the alcohol and the rehab parts – is about to happen again. I know Phelps is a father now and that he obviously loves his fiancee and his baby and he’s going to have a wedding soon. He has things going on. I get it. He will want to shut it down for a year, maybe two, and concentrate on his family. He will again insist it’s all over in a final news conference Sunday afternoon that will draw hundreds to the Main Press Center in Rio.
“Being able to cap it of with these Games is just a perfect way to finish,” Phelps said after his race.
But what happens after a year or two? How many diapers can one man really change?
That’s what people wonder, and that’s why even his teammates are skeptical this retirement will stick.
“He said he was going to retire after 2012, and I was the only person that said he’s going to come back,” teammate Ryan Lochte said. “I think he’s going to come back again just because, when you get to this stage, we thrive off that excitement. ... He wants that challenge. He wants to push his limits. ... I know I’m definitely going to come back and I definitely want him there.”
Is 35 too old?
Anthony Ervin won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle Friday night. Right now Ervin is 35, the same age Phelps would be if the takes a run at the 2020 Olympics.
“I don’t want to (guess if) the retirement is going to be permanent or not,” Ervin said of Phelps. “I hope not. You know the guy is still so good, he could still offer so much as a competitor.”
Like Phelps, Ervin well knows the dangers of retiring without a real backup plan. Phelps seems to have a better one this time around, with his growing family, but he certainly thought he had a plan last time, too.
“When you achieve great success at this,” Ervin said of swimming, “you don’t know how to do much else. Your sense of self-worth and your value is caught up in what you have achieved as a competitor. At a certain point, your judgment gets clouded.”
A two-year hiatus
The last time Phelps left, in 2012, he stayed away for two years and then took a relatively long time to get back in the swimming shape he is today. In one news conference in Rio this week, Phelps pointed specifically to the Grand Prix meets in Charlotte that he swam in 2014 and 2015 as times when he felt like quitting again. In both of those meets, Phelps was beaten constantly – by some swimmers you have heard of and many that you haven’t.
I remember watching Phelps swimming “B” finals because he couldn’t qualify in the top eight. I remember him misjudging the wall on his turns at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center time and again. I remember his anger.
After one race in 2015, Phelps told the handful of us reporters who were there: “In the present moment, it is frustrating and tough at times. And I am somebody who still wants to win every race and still wants to be in the middle of the pool (with the fastest qualifiers). I’m sick and tired of being on the outside of the pool or in the B final on the outside of the pool – that’s even worse.”
Back on top
A little more than a year later, he has made the climb to the top of the swimming world again. He has had his fourth straight unbelievable Olympics -- winning five of his six events and grabbing a silver in the other -- and the moments he has shared with his new baby have been touching, genuine and gobbled up by the TV cameras.
Phelps said that in a recent FaceTime conversation with baby Boomer that by waving a gold medal in front of the screen he got his son to stop crying. These Olympics in many ways really were perfect for him -- his first time as a team captain, his first time as a U.S. flagbearer, his first time taking off his once ever-present headphones and actually showing his teammates that he’s more than just a swimming automaton.
For all that, though, I don’t really think Phelps is done, and I won’t truly believe it until he skips the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020. Maybe he only does one event and a relay. But I think he will be there.
When you’re this good at something, it’s so hard to walk away. And why should he, really? Phelps’ longtime coach Bob Bowman has said many times over the years as his most famous pupil has retired and un-retired and now has retired again: “Mozart should make music as long as he wants to make music.”
Mozart died at age 35, though. When Phelps is that same age, I think we will see him in Tokyo.