RIO DE JANEIRO – Standing atop the medal podium for the 23rd time, Michael Phelps teared up, bit his lip and gave a little nod. This was how he really wanted to go out, on top of his game in the water and totally content away from the pool.
“It turned out pretty cool,” Phelps said, another gold medal around his neck. “It’s just a perfect way to finish.”
Phelps put the United States ahead to stay on the butterfly leg of the 4×100-meter medley relay, giving the most decorated athlete in Olympic history his 23rd career gold medal Saturday night.
If that was the end, and Phelps insists it is, the numbers are simply astonishing.
No other Olympian has more than nine gold medals.
With 28 medals in all, he’s 10 clear of anyone else.
“It’s not even once in a generation,” said his coach, Bob Bowman. “It might be once in 10 generations that someone like Michael Phelps comes along. “
As Nathan Adrian touched the wall to finish off the victory, Phelps gathered the other relay swimmers, Ryan Murphy and Cody Miller, in his arms. One night after his only setback of the games, an upset loss to Joseph Schooling in the 100 fly, Phelps was back on top.
At age 31, he leaves Rio with five golds and a silver.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “This is the best place I’ve ever been in my life.”
In the stands, his fiancee, Nicole Johnson, bounced along to the music with their son, 3-month-old Boomer, cradled in her arms.
Phelps is eager to spend a lot more time with them. He plans to marry Johnson after the Olympics and said he wants to watch his son grow, maybe even dole out a swimming lesson or two.
And what if Boomer wants to take all those medals to show-and-tell someday?
“I might let him take one,” Phelps said with a grin.
“Maybe a bronze,” Bowman chimed in.
Most of the U.S. swim team was in the stands to watch Phelps’ finale, including the biggest female star at the pool, Katie Ledecky.
The 19-year-old Ledecky joked that she was proud to be part of Phelps’ final Olympics – twice. He initially retired after the 2012 London Olympics, only to decide about a year later to return.
The comeback endured a huge setback with his second drunken-driving arrest in 2014, which led to Phelps being banned from the world championships last year. But it also sparked a turnaround in his personal life. He entered six weeks of inpatient therapy, where he got in touch with some of the issues that seemed to lead him astray.
He quit drinking, reconnected with his estranged father, got engaged, moved to Arizona along with Bowman, and became a father for the first time.
Phelps sounds much more adamant when he says his swimming career really is over.
“These games really showed his growth,” teammate Anthony Ervin said. “That human spirit, that capacity to heal. I think it showed in his swimming, it showed in his demeanor, and it certainly showed in his leadership on the team.”
Phelps was elected a team captain for the first time in his fifth Olympics and truly seemed to enjoy being around his fellow swimmers. He was still the same ruthless competitor, but he was also willing to join in when some of his younger teammates made a carpool karaoke video at their final training camp in Atlanta.
Took a starring role, in fact.
“Being Michael requires such isolation,” Ervin said. “Other people respect that. They give him that space because he is the greatest. But this time around he started reaching out, reaching out to other people, bringing them closer, letting that gap be bridged. That was special.”
On a victory stroll around the pool, Phelps and his teammates grabbed a sign that said, “Thank You Rio.”
“No matter what country you swim for, you’re indebted to Michael Phelps for bringing a lot of exposure to the sport and making it a little more mainstream,” Murphy said. “If this is the end that was a great way to cap off an incredible career.”
Murphy, who won two backstroke golds in Rio, put the Americans out front with a world-record split – it counts since he was leading off – before Britain surged ahead on the breaststroke with its own world-record holder, Adam Peaty.
Phelps dove into the pool in second place.
He wouldn’t be for long.
On the return lap, Phelps powered through the water with his windmill of a stroke, surging ahead of James Guy to pass off a lead to the anchor Adrian.
It wasn’t in doubt after that. Adrian pulled away on the freestyle to win in an Olympic-record time of 3 minutes, 27.95 seconds. Britain held on for silver, with Australia nabbing bronze.
The victory came just minutes after the women’s medley relay gave the United States its 1,000th Olympic gold medal at the Summer Games.
“A thousandth gold for team USA,” said Simone Manuel, who swam the anchor leg for her second gold of the games and second medal of the night. “It’s a nice number.”
Kathleen Baker, Lilly King and Dana Vollmer joined Manuel in the historic victory, which came with a time of 3:53.13. Australia earned silver, while Denmark took bronze.
Earlier in the night, Manuel took silver in the 50 free. She already became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic swimming title with her win in the 100 free.
Connor Jaeger gave the U.S. another silver in the 1,500 free, leaving the American with 33 swimming medals in Rio – matching the highest total since they captured 34 against a depleted field at the boycotted Los Angeles Games of 1984.
The U.S. also won 33 medals at Sydney in 2000.
The final two individual golds of the games went to Pernille Blume of Denmark in the 50 free, her country’s first swimming victory since 1948, and Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri in the grueling 1,500 free.
The night, though, belonged to Phelps, who walked out of the arena for the final time carrying an American flag handed to him by his mother from her front-row seat, right next to Johnson and little Boomer.
With a gold medal around his neck.The only way imaginable.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .