The father, the millionaire, the reformed: Michael Phelps ponders future

Michael Phelps spent years becoming the Olympic legend he is, persevered through personal struggles, emerging from Rio 2016 with a new set of priorities for his retirement.

American leaves swimming with 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold

Michael Phelps waves to the crowd the evening of his final Olympic race, the 4x100-metre medley relay, at Rio 2016. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Let's be honest, Michael Phelps's eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games must have been exhausting.

It wouldn't only have been his races in Beijing's Water Cube pool, just as in 2016, there was plenty more to do once off the deck of Rio's Olympic Aquatics Stadium.  

There's warm-up, then warm-down, which for swimmers can be up to an hour each. After each medal finish in Beijing or Rio, Phelps did interviews, a medal ceremony, doping control, various therapy, and of course eating and resting.

The five-time Olympian raced 17 times in Beijing, repeating some version of the above each time. At age 31 in Rio, Phelps still raced a dozen times. 

Pile on top brutally hard training, mountains of expectation, and Phelps's now 16-year international career with 28 Olympic medals and 30 other major podiums is enough to make someone want to sleep for an entire quadrennial.

Good Phelps, bad Phelps

Along the way there were highlights and mistakes, some bigger than others. After 2008, his endorsement value soared and he did things like cameo on Entourage. He retired after London, then made a comeback, and won five gold and one silver in Rio.

"This all started and began with one little dream as a kid that changed the sport of swimming. I tried to do something nobody else has ever done," said Phelps at the end of Rio. "And it turned out pretty cool."

But mistakes included being photographed with a bong in 2009 and a second DUI arrest in Sept. of 2014. After the latter Phelps spent six weeks in rehab, reconciling the toll of becoming the most-decorated Olympian, resulting in an oft-told transformation story.

Redemption became the underlying theme gifting quotes like this, "I came back because I wanted to. I wanted to do this for me. I'm enjoying the moment and I'm embracing the moment and taking it one step at a time," said Phelps before Rio began.

"Being able to fall in love with the sport again is something that I've always wanted to do again and I did it on my terms."

What's next for Phelps

So what does Michael Phelps do now? In Rio the American added a step to his post-victory routine; a stop to greet his fiancee Nicole Johnson, and kiss their son Boomer.

A few days after the Rio swim meet ended, Phelps posted a picture of his family, in a pool, on Instagram.

Phelps has repetitively said he's done, in so many posts and quotes. He hasn't shied away from being more honest in interviews, embracing vulnerability.

"This is how I wanted to finish my career," said Phelps the night of his final race, a butterfly leg on the American 4x100 medley relay (they won). "Getting off the bus walking into the pool tonight, I pretty much felt myself starting to cry. Last time putting on a suit, last time walking out in front of thousands of people representing my country."

As he advances into retirement it has become clear the father who began as a 15-year-old, 5th-place in Sydney, only to construct a one-man Olympic dynasty, is leaving the sport on solid ground.

"For Sydney, I just wanted to make the team. For Athens, I wanted to win gold for my country. For Beijing, I wanted to do something nobody else had done. In London, I wanted to make history," said Phelps the day he was announced the opening ceremony flag-bearer for the United States.

Of Rio, he said he wanted to, "represent America in the best possible way and make my family proud."

Phelps's record medal haul will become married to his legacy in the same way Usain Bolt has the 'triple-triple' or Wayne Gretzky has his regular-season records.

Yet the wholesome essence in that quote reveals Phelps's well-intentioned way forward. A nuanced but important tell that the champion who grew up defined by the Olympic Games, managed somehow, to take himself back, and leave on his own terms.  

With files from: Steve Keating, Reuters, Paul Newberry, The Associated Press


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