The fingertips of Michael Phelps’ long, great arms touched the wall for the final time in an Olympic pool on Saturday, and he has gone from competitive swimming for good.
He took his leave as he has lived his life: with a gold medal around his neck, from the medley relay. The British quartet – Chris Walker-Hebborn, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott – finished with the silver medal, making it six for the revived team.
The British star was Peaty, the breaststroke champion, who took the boys from sixth to first in a brilliant exhibition. But Phelps, in the next lane on the butterfly leg, got the US back in front and that was that.
At 31, Phelps has known little else but staring through chlorine at a black line. But that existence is over. And he carries with him into his future 23 Olympic gold medals, the last of five this week delivered in the closing act of the swimming championships in Rio.
He held his arms aloft and the crowd roared afterwards. It was, alas, the goodbye. A lady in the stands dabbed the tears away.
Phelps’ records may be beaten one day. But for now he stands in the company of a sportsman he, as an American, may never have heard of: the great Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman, whose average, fraction short of 100 runs, makes him almost mathematically twice as good as anyone ever.
The nearest to Phelps in the Olympic ledger is Larisa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast of the 1950s and 1960s, who won nine golds and 18 of any colour.
The sportsmen who have so significantly dominated their sport constitutes a small list. Tiger Woods was one when he won the US Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes. But Phelps’ strength has ranged across five Olympics, from Sydney where he was a finalist as a 15-year-old, to here at the end of a post-‘retirement’ hurrah.
But this is it. It is retirement for ever, so he says. And those close to him say he has found a life out of trunks. He is coaching and become a father to baby boy Boomer, born in May. There is no void in his life to be filled.
‘I am not going four more years,’ said Phelps. ‘And I’m standing by that. I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever put my mind to in 24 years in this sport.
That’s why I came back after 2012. I didn’t want to have a “what if?” 20 years later.
‘Being able to close the door on this sport how I want to, that’s why I’m happy now.’
His win made up for his defeat in the last solo race, the night before, when he lost to Joseph Schooling of Singapore in the 100m butterfly.
But that was no way for the great Phelps, a man with a long torso and arms to his knees and feet like flippers, to bow out. It was, as we were saying, with a gold medal around his neck.