The end of an era

Michael Phelps was a disappointment in these London Olympics; his medal total was four gold and two silver.

Remarkable for almost any other athlete, but the words “Michael Phelps” and “silver” leave a bitter taste on the mouths of those who’ve been spoiled by watching history’s greatest swimmer of the past decade.

The Phelps that we saw swim in these games was a different swimmer than the one we had come to know. The Olympian readily admitted that he was swimming in less than stellar condition, having decided to train less than he had in previous years but Phelps was determined to train and race in these games the way that he wanted to, not the way that others expected him to. After all, he was no longer a man chasing records, like he was in Beijing, because he had no records to chase, no career accomplishment that he had yet to achieve.

This is a man who has set 39 world records, has won 26 world titles and even pulled off the first ever Olympic three-peat gold medal performance by a male swimmer when he beat out teammate Ryan Lochte in the 200m individual medley. If he were to decide to declare his independence, his 22 medals would give him more medals than 154 countries have ever achieved in the Summer Olympics.

Despite all of that, Phelps was a man that was supposed to chase his own shadow in London while in reality, that wasn’t the case at all. That’s certainly not to say that he didn’t want to win, but Phelps was at peace with the fact that these were his last games and was using the opportunity that he was given in London to say goodbye to the world of competitive swimming.

In his last press conference of the London Olympics, Phelps stated: “I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted. If you can say that about your career, there’s no need to move forward. Time for other things.”

We have been blessed with the opportunity to watch Phelps dominate at the Olympics. When Phelps first began competing in the Olympics, he was seen as the Tom Sawyer of aquatic sports, an immature boy capable of performing at levels that weren’t supposed to be humanely possible.

Slowly, with each public stumble and apology, with each interview and opportunity to see more of the real Michael Phelps, this image changed. At some point, he stopped being Tom Sawyer and became more like Huck Finn, the more flawed character of the two, and that made him seem more human than would’ve been possible had he just stayed in the pool.

With the London Olympics behind him, the time has come for Phelps to step out of the pool a champion for the last time. Phelps always swore that when he retired that would be the end of his career. There would be no coming out of retirement for this once in a lifetime talent and those that know him well agree that this is the end for Phelps.

The legend of Michael Phelps and all of his accomplishments have defined an entire era of Olympic history. And that is the best thing that any athlete, including Phelps, can give the fans: a legacy that will be impossible to forget.