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 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 with 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, which gave 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, Phelps is 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 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 fiancée, 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 — and maybe even dole out a swimming lesson or two.
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, and he got in touch with some of the issues that seemed to lead him astray.
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