Phelps enjoying his last hurrah
July 27, 2012
LONDON (AP) – For Michael Phelps, this is it. In his mind, there’s no doubt about it. As soon as his hand touches the wall for the final time at the London Olympics, his swimming career is over.
And, really, what’s left to accomplish?
“Enough is enough,” said Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman. “Come on! It’s been a very long road. A great road, no doubt, but I think at some point you have to graduate. He needs to move on to something else.”
What he’s moving on to is still rather vague.
Phelps wants to keep working toward his long-stated goal of turning swimming into a truly mainstream sport, but he’s much better positioned to advance that cause when he’s in the water, rather than on land. He’ll probably look to expand his chain of swim schools, and there will still be plenty of work to do with his sponsors, who aren’t likely to abandon him just because he’s turned in his suit.
Heck, he might turn up in Rio as a television commentator four years from now.
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“I’d probably need some help,” he concedes. “I know there are some things you should and shouldn’t do on TV. It would be kind of fun. Maybe call a couple of races.”
Will he be satisfied watching others compete? Can he harness that win-at-all-costs mentality that carried him to gold in Beijing by a thousandth of a second when it seemed certain he was beaten in the 100-meter butterfly?
“I’m competitive in anything that I do,” Phelps said. “I’m sure I’ll pick up another hobby or something else that will keep me occupied for the rest of my life.”
No matter what happens in London, Phelps’ legacy in the pool is largely secure.
He’s won a staggering 14 gold medals, which is five more than the second-best number on the list. He’ll almost surely surpass the mark for most medals overall, coming into these Olympics just two shy of the 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. By any measure, Phelps is the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen, and these games should secure his title at the top of the Olympic heap.
Maybe that’s why he seems to be having a lot more fun in the days leading up to London than he did at Athens or Beijing, where he was under intense pressure to turn in record-breaking performances.
“This is closure,” Phelps said Thursday, sitting beside Bowman in the largest conference room at the Main Press Centre. “Now it’s just a matter of how many toppings I want on my sundae.”
Several hundred media packed the room, including Olympic speedskating star Apolo Anton Ohno, who’s now working for NBC and got in a question about how Phelps keeps things simple with all the distractions.
Actually, he seems to be having a blast. After Phelps walked in the room, he pulled out his phone and snapped a picture of all the reporters and cameras staring back at him, capturing another moment on his farewell tour.
“This is the last competitive meet I’m going to have in my career,” Phelps said. “It’s big. It’s something I’ve never experienced. I’m going to have a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week.”
He’s been relaxing in the common room of his apartment in the Olympic Village, watching episodes of “The Wire,” the gritty drama based in his hometown of Baltimore. He’s spent time strolling through the sprawling complex, caught off guard when he spotted three Russian female athletes – all of them taller than the 6-foot-4-inch swimmer.
“Geez, I thought I was tall,” Phelps said with a chuckle.
He better chill now, because he’ll be a very busy guy starting Saturday with his duel in the 400 individual medley against American rival Ryan Lochte. Even though Phelps dropped out of the 200 freestyle, he’s still swimming more events than anyone except teammate Missy Franklin: four individual races and, most likely, all three relays.
Compared to the last Olympics, where he broke Mark Spitz’s record for a single games with eight gold medals, this program looks like a relative breeze for the 27-year-old Phelps. The fact that someone swimming seven events could be viewed as taking it easy perhaps sums up his dominance better than anything else.
“In Beijing, we were trying to conquer everything,” he said. “We’re a lot more relaxed. We’re having fun.”
When Bowman was asked what makes Phelps such a dominating swimmer, he pointed to his physical attributes (large feet and a long torso), the support of a swimming family, a superb work ethic and perhaps the greatest attribute of all – “his ability to focus under pressure.”
“If you checked off everything you wanted in a superstar athlete,” Bowman said, “he has all those.”
Phelps has been such a dominating figure for so long, some wonder how the sport he took to new heights will carry on once he’s gone.
In many ways, he’s like Tiger Woods in golf. Not necessarily the one with the intriguing personality. Not the one who comes across to fans as warm and fuzzy. Maybe not even the most popular one with the fans (judging from the fan reactions at meets this year, that would be Lochte).
But Phelps is the one who draws most of the attention, the one whose sheer brilliance was enough to persuade the IOC to flip-flop the entire swimming schedule at Beijing so NBC could televise the finals live in the States.
“I think the neatness of the accomplishment in Beijing really sort of catapulted him to a whole different level,” said Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ agent. “It’s not just what happened in the pool, but having so much of the world watching it. The timing of it, the manner in which he won, the fact that it unfolded over several days. It all had this cumulative effect. Eventually, he drew everyone in, and it’s hard to captivate the attention of a significant percentage of the world at any given time.”
USA Swimming has experienced a significant jump in revenue and membership during the Phelps era. In 2001, the year after he competed in his first Olympics as a 15-year-old, finishing fifth in his lone event, the governing body had about 232,000 year-round swimmers. By 2010, that number had grown to nearly 287,000 – a 24 percent increase in less than a decade, much of it surely attributed to kids wanting to follow in the wake of the world’s No. 1 swimmer.
The sport figures to take a bump – in the wrong direction – once Phelps is gone.
“It’s very much like Lance Armstrong not being in the Tour de France,” said another U.S. swimmer, Brendan Hansen. “America was obsessed with watching the Tour de France when Lance was winning all those Tour de Frances. As soon as he got out, it kind of held back a little bit.”
Others hope Phelps’ retirement will steer some attention to other worthy swimmers. Lochte has an engaging personality and no plans to retire, even though he’s actually a few months older than Phelps. Franklin is just 17 and poised for a major breakthrough before she even begins her senior year of high school.
“There’s two ways you can look at it,” said Teri McKeever, head coach of the U.S. women’s team. “Yeah, there’s probably going to be a drop-off without Michael. But you’re going to have Ryan, you’re going to have Missy Franklin … you’re going to have a lot of new people. In some ways it’s going to be exciting. How exciting is it going to be to see who wants to step up to be the next Michael. I think that’s kind of cool.”
Many wonder if Phelps will stick with his plan to retire when plenty of swimmers are competing into their 30s, and even their 40s. Plus, it’s become downright commonplace for swimmers to walk away from the sport, vowing they are done, only to return when they run out of challenges away from the pool. Just this year, Ian Thorpe and 40-year-old Janet Evans made unsuccessful returns. Anthony Ervin, on the other hand, qualified for the U.S. team after an eight-year layoff.
Bowman has no doubt that Phelps’ career is over. For good.
“I would say he’s not coming back,” the coach said. “And if I can help it, he’s definitely not coming back.”
But Carlisle, his agent, isn’t totally ruling out a return.
“Michael has made it very clear he doesn’t intend to swim past London,” he said. “I respect that he’s saying that. At the same time, I think he has earned the right to be given space and, maybe for the first time in his life, not think about training and swimming. Experience life a little bit.”
Then, Carlisle adds, “The only reason I would not say ‘no way’ is how can any of us be sure how we will feel three years down the road, especially if life is going to be changing dramatically in so many ways? If he changes his mind at some point, that would be understandable to me.”
Phelps knows it will be a challenge to stay away.
He plans to win this race, too.
“It’s been a part of my life for so long, so walking away will be weird,” he said. “But it’s something that I’m ready for. Eventually it will hit me and it will strike me that it is all over. Who knows what will happen then? I’ll just take it all in steps and deal with it along the way.”