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Is Michael Phelps Really Done?

After a dominant display in Rio, putting a mind-boggling career in context

Getty Images
Getty Images

Four years ago in London, Michael Phelps won four gold medals to go with two silver and came out the most decorated athlete of those games. This month in Rio, he turned one of those second-place finishes into another trip to the top of the podium. Michael Phelps will, for the fourth consecutive games, finish as the top medal winner — this time after competing in what the public has been emphatically told will be his last Olympics. But has his performance in Rio opened the door for an appearance in Tokyo?

Think of it this way: Have we ever seen an athlete leave his or her sport while undeniably sitting at its apex — and then stay away? Pre-disgrace Lance Armstrong, who retired after winning his seventh Tour de France, couldn’t help but return four years later as a great — but not singular — cyclist. Michael Jordan, after a near-perfect final season with the Bulls (won the scoring title, hit the Finals-winning shot), couldn’t help but give us Wizards Jordan™ three years later. Pete Sampras and Peyton Manning each finished their careers with trophies, but both looked like lesser versions of their historically dominant selves.

The same aggressive curiosity that makes exceptional athletes historically dominant is seemingly what leads them to compete past their primes. So, now that Phelps has delivered his final hammer blow in a manner no less commanding than his performance four years ago, it’s hard to believe that he will never compete again.

Of the five individual events that Michael Phelps has competed in at an Olympic games, the 100-meter butterfly is the shortest. It has the smallest margin for error. And so, while Phelps has generally seemed superhuman, as he did in Thursday’s 200-meter individual medley, the 100 fly has traditionally given us a Phelps who can’t swim away from the field, but will always, somehow, finish first.

It would be reductive to say that Phelps’s sprinting performances are more reflective of his will than of his preparation, but looking at his past Olympic victories, it has seemed that way. Phelps has always entered the 100 fly’s only turn in the field’s bottom half, only to catch all competitors in the race’s back half. When, in 50 meters, he raced from Ian Crocker’s hip to finish first in 2004, it was shocking. When he did the same from Milorad Cavic’s waist in 2008, it was iconic, and became possibly the defining moment of Phelps’s (and, unfortunately, Cavic’s) career. By 2012, when he overtook the field in the race’s final length, it was expected. The 100 fly was the race that made us believe that Michael Phelps could fail. That is, until he touched the wall.

On Friday night, Phelps was sixth at the turn. Only this time, he didn’t catch the race’s winner, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, who finished a jaw-dropping three quarters of a second ahead of the field. Phelps finished in a three-way tie for second.

Maybe this was inevitable. Phelps, in Lane 2, hadn’t swum an Olympic final so far from the center lanes since he started in Lane 8 for the 400 IM in 2012, the race that remains his career’s biggest black mark. His 100 fly semifinal on Thursday night came less than an hour after the 200 IM final, putting his demanding program — and his less reliable 31-year-old body — in primetime. Eight years ago, we took it for granted that one athlete could swim 17 races against top competition without getting tired or falling short a single time. Now, even in a games where Phelps became the oldest swimmer to win individual gold (for a few days, at least), the biggest strike against him is that his body can weaken enough to come in second even once. Viewers and pundits know that he is still dominant, and Phelps, surely, knows it as well.

But for Olympians, there is rarely an opportunity to leave the spotlight during a shallow decline, and four years is plenty of time to grow weak. The competitive years between 27 and 31 for a swimmer usually precede retirement: The speed and recovery that graced their 20s often vanishes after more than a decade of world-class competition. (Just look at the struggles of Ryan Lochte during these games.) But the years between 31 and 35 are entirely uncharted, especially for nonsprinters. Even to make an educated guess about what will happen to Phelps between now and the Tokyo games is impossible. His performances in Beijing, London, and Rio were impacted as much by the inevitability of time as they were his preparation, or lack thereof. (The London games wouldn’t have been disappointing for anybody else, but Phelps has admitted that his preparation for the games was … limited.) Phelps’s struggles away from the Olympics have been well publicized, but now, with a fiancée and an infant son, he insists that staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool is no longer an indispensable stabilizing force in his life. Maybe he really will hang it up.

Then again: Could Phelps really be so different from all of the compulsively competitive athletes who have come before him?

Phelps finished his program Saturday night with a win in the 4x100 medley relay, an event the American men have never lost at the Olympics. He stood atop the podium wearing a gold medal around his neck just as he had 21 times before (he didn’t swim in the final of the medley relay in 2004, after giving his spot in the race to Crocker, but was awarded a medal for swimming in the heats) soaking in the view that nobody in history has been more familiar with.

“He’s living well. The swimming is far from the only thing that he is doing,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’s coach. Bowman doesn’t seem to be stretching the truth. During these games, Phelps has looked relaxed. He’s talked about the joys of competing in front of his son. After the 100 fly, he conceded that he couldn’t have expected to swim a better race and credited Schooling’s dominant performance. The weight of expectations, both his own and the public’s, no longer seemed to be a burden. “I’m enjoying the sport like I did when I was an 18-year-old,” Phelps said.

Phelps’s profile has long surpassed the scope of swimming or Olympic sport in general. While we see basketball and tennis players rise and decline month to month, swimmers, runners, and gymnasts are only seen in snapshots. As exceptional as Simone Biles is, much of the world had not seen her compete until this past week — and due to gymnasts’ unusually short primes, they may never see her compete again. We have been spoiled by Phelps: He has been so good for so long that even though we only see him for one week out of every 200 or so, we feel the same familiarity with him as we do with Tom Brady and LeBron James.

Most athletes that great can only stomp on their competitors because the desire to win is what gives their life meaning. They don’t decide to walk away — reality tells them that they have no other choice. But Phelps still has a choice. And if he really does step (and stay) away, maybe that’ll be the last way he shows how great he is.