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Michael Phelps will have a hard time walking away from the pool

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

So the greatest swimmer who ever lived is going to call it quits at age 27.

That's what Michael Phelps told "60 Minutes" – that he'll retire after the 2012 Summer Olympics in London – and I think he means it – for now. But four years from now, when the 2016 Olympic Games roll around? I think he'll be in the pool in Rio.

Back in 2008, after winning the gold medal in the 400 individual medley in Beijing, Phelps swore he was done with the most exhausting event in the sport. And who could blame him? He owned the event, destroying world record after world record. Watching him dominate the 400 IM was like watching Usain Bolt run the 100 meters – that is if Usain Bolt also did the long jump, pole vault and hammer throw. But the 400 IM takes a special kind of masochism, and Phelps was delighted to be done with it.

That's how he felt in 2008. But now?

After smoking the field in the 400 IM a few weeks ago at a Grand Prix in Indianapolis, Phelps was asked if he might add the event to his London plan. "Who knows?" Phelps responded. Then, when reminded of what he said back in 2008, he smiled and said, "Yes it is different from what I said before."

The difference being four years later he knows he can still win it, and how do you walk away believing that?

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Michael Phelps will be competing in his fourth Olymipc Games in 2012. (AFP)

After so many years in the pool and in the spotlight, Phelps has to be ready to stop. He has been consistent in saying he wouldn't swim past age 30, and he certainly deserves to walk away whenever he wants. After all, he's changed the sport for the better and earned millions along the way. As he told Larry Beil of Yahoo! Sports, "Twenty years in the sport, I've been able to do everything I could imagine plus more."

But we're talking about one of the most competitive athletes in sports. And we're talking about a sport in which the top athletes retire and un-retire all the time. Janet Evans came back. Dara Torres came back. Amanda Beard came back. Brendan Hansen came back. Even Ian Thorpe came back. The sport is impossibly grueling – just one warm-up, Olympic race and warm-down costs a swimmer a marathon's worth of calories – but it's also extremely difficult to leave at any point in life, let alone when an athlete is in his prime. And despite a performance in Beijing that may never be equaled, Phelps is still in his prime. He won't be too much past it in four years.

"I still have so many more [goals] that I want to accomplish over the next couple months," he told Yahoo! Sports. "That was the reason why I decided to choose to come back to the sport and go four more years."

That gives you an insight into Phelps. Eight gold medals in one Olympic Games apparently weren't enough.

Let's go back eight years, to Athens. Phelps had a breakout Olympics, at age 19, winning six gold medals. Then real-life hit him like a freight train and he stumbled. He got pulled over one night and charged with a DUI. That created a mini-scandal for his squeaky-clean image. There was more trouble behind the scenes: Phelps hurt his back, fell out of shape and generally had trouble getting his life back on track. He spent his days doing nothing and even walked out on his coach, Bob Bowman, who was then his host. There were all kinds of concerns – from his coach, his mother, his agent – before and then Phelps got back into the pool and roared to eight gold medals in Beijing. He fell back into the groove of swimming, turned everything around and inspired millions in the process.

Now here we are in 2012. Phelps is 26. He reviewed the last four years for 60 Minutes and it went something like this: After a record haul at the Olympics, he was photographed with marijuana paraphernalia on a college campus, which created another mini-scandal. Behind the scenes, there was more lethargy. Phelps spent his life playing video games and ignoring the pool. He even skipped important practices and went to Las Vegas without telling Bowman, who became "very concerned." Now Phelps is back in the pool and he says he feels as good as ever.

See the pattern here? When Phelps is swimming – when there is structure to follow and goals to reach – things are well in his world. When he's not, he tends to stray.

It's understandable. Athletes go through four years (or more) for a single fortnight and then they are suddenly out of their routine. For someone like Phelps, who has relied on swimming since he was a little boy with ADHD, the challenges have been even tougher. Now add the celebrity and the endorsements and you've got a minefield of stress.

Phelps has handled all of it admirably and nobody can blame him for wanting to get some closure after 12 years of the most grueling training anyone on the planet has endured. He swam his first Olympic event at age 15. He has lived his life in the pool. There's more out there for him – career, family, public speaking and continuing to work on his foundation.

But he can do all those things without giving up another shot at the Olympics. He can swim a 50-meter freestyle in Rio – something his mother, Debbie, playfully suggested on 60 Minutes – and continue to grow his foundation and the sport of swimming. In fact, there's no better way to bring more attention for his causes than to swim in front of the world again. The foundation, after all, was started with the $1 million bonus he earned from Speedo for winning eight gold medals in Beijing. In 2016, a new generation of children will be watching.

But there's a more elemental reason why Phelps could return: he's insanely driven. He feeds on enemies both real and imagined. He thrives on goals both tangible and unrealistic. The impossible is his daily bread, devoured along with the 12,000 calories he consumes in one of his epic training days. As he gets older, the definition of "impossible" will change. Phelps' drive will not.

Those who saw the 60 Minutes interview probably marveled that Phelps keeps his gold medals in a makeup case and can't seem to locate one of them. That's sheer blasphemy for most Olympic hopefuls, who would cuddle with a gold medal every night as if it was a magic teddy bear. But Phelps is always looking forward, always seizing the next challenge.

Every year leading up to Beijing, he kept a tiny sheet of paper by his bedside. On it, he listed his goals for the '08 Games. He accomplished all but one. Doubtless that remaining goal is now on a new sheet of paper, and here's betting he'll accomplish that one, whatever it is, this summer.

Where are the gold medals Phelps actually won? Hidden away somewhere. Where are the goals for the future? He knows exactly where they are. He won't let anyone else near them – not even his mom. Phelps will likely be the most decorated Olympian ever after these Games. But there will always be goals for him in the pool. There will always be an Omega timer daring him to come back.

So when Michael Phelps says he's done after London, he's not being coy. "When I retire," he told 60 Minutes, "I'm staying retired."

He'll swim off into the sunset and enjoy teaching kids to swim and teaching himself to golf. But within the next four years he'll hear the call of the water, and he'll remember the feeling of touching first. And although Phelps has willed himself past every physical and mental wall he's ever faced, that final wall – the wall of never again – will be very difficult for a young man to break through.

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