His final race over, Michael Phelps’s influence on swimming hard to measure

It was hard to avoid the Michael Phelps storyline at the Rio Olympics, as his excellence in the pool transformed the sport of swimming and its role in the Games.
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RIO DE JANEIRO – At the end, Michael Phelps thought about the beginning. In 2000, when he was 15 and swimming in his first Olympics, in Sydney, he and Aaron Piersol talked about swimming in the 400 medley relay someday. Now here was Phelps, at the end of a career that was bigger and better than any that came before it, finishing his career in that same race, in what has become a different sport.

The race ended with a gold medal. Of course it did. Most Michael Phelps finals end with a gold medal. Phelps now has 23 gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes. He won’t say where he keeps them, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Phelps’s biggest triumph is not the medals he won, but the people he changed.

Officially, on the final night of his career (he swears!), Phelps only swam 100 meters of the butterfly. That’s it. But that’s not it. Phelps had a hand in Ryan Murphy beginning that relay with a world record of 51.85 seconds in the 100 backstroke. As Murphy said afterward, “I’d be lying if I said being part of the relay didn’t propel me to a world record.” Murphy knew he was swimming with Michael Phelps, in a race America just doesn’t lose.

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And there was Phelps, encouraging the American women as they won their own 400 medley relay. His inspiration may seem funny at first—Lilly King said, “he went in for a fist bump and I went in for a high-five. We kind of turkey-ed it.” But it wasn’t just a botched high-five. It was a botched high-five with Michael Phelps.

“Michael has been an Olympian since I was three,” King said. “I’ve grown up watching him swim and looking up to him. Being able to learn from him on this trip … I don’t want to say I was watching his every move, but I was kind of learning from him, and observing him—all his greatness and what he does.”

You couldn’t run away from the Michael Phelps story this week, and best of all, nobody wanted to. After the final gold medal, reporters asked relay mates Murphy, Nathan Adrian and Cody Miller about the pressure of swimming in Phelps’s last race, as though they were his personal chef, driver and back-cupper instead of equals on a relay team. But they understood.

“He’s completely changed (swimming),” Adrian said. “He’s influenced the entire Olympic movement.”

Who saw this coming? Incredibly, Phelps did. As he said Saturday, “This all started with one little dream as a kid to change the sport of swimming, to do something nobody else has ever done.”

His heroes were not just Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi; he wanted to be his sport’s Michael Jordan. When he earned his 23rd and final gold, he thought immediately of Jordan’s 23.

America had star swimmers before Phelps showed up. But Phelps became something larger, a name everybody knew, an athlete who commanded the respect we previously accorded to the best football or basketball players. His swimming is done and his Olympic medals have been counted, but his work cannot be fully assessed. That will take years.

So much has been made of Phelps’s personal transformation since the 2012 London games. That story is easily packaged: The DUI, bong photo and occasional churlishness are in the past; fiancée Nicole Johnson, son Boomer and personal happiness are the present. Phelps said, “The biggest thing that’s changed is, you guys are seeing me. You might never have seen that before.”

But even as a changed man, Phelps has not forgotten that dream he had as a kid. He said Saturday, “I am retiring, but I’m not done-done with swimming. This is just the start of something new.”

We’ll see what he means by that, but it should not surprise anybody if Phelps continues to push swimming to the masses.  He loves his sport in a way that is unusual, even for elite athletes. He did not just want to dominate it; he wanted to elevate it.

He did that. Nobody is confusing swimming’s popularity with the NFL’s, but Phelps had an impact that was hard to fathom a generation ago. He was arguably the biggest star of four straight summer Olympics. He made swimming the Olympic sport to watch in the United States.

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His coach, Bob Bowman, was asked about finding the next Phelps. He said, “Absolutely not. I’m not even looking. It’s not even once in a generation. It might be once in 10 generations.”

A talent like this can leave the pool, but it never really leaves the sport. Just as young basketball players are influenced (knowingly or unknowingly) by Jordan, young swimmers all swim in Phelps’s wake. Here in Rio, Phelps looked around at the faces and the names that were winning races—and the flags next to those names. He was amazed.

“It’s not one or two or three countries,” he said. “It’s everybody. That’s something I’ve never seen in the sport.”

Twenty-eight medals. Twenty-three are gold. Phelps can hide those medals if he wants. Young swimmers will still close their eyes at night and see them.