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RIO DE JANEIRO – The hair is growing back on Michael Phelps’ legs. You could see the stubble as he strolled around the veranda of the Grand Hyatt in shorts and flip-flops Tuesday, three days and five miles removed from where he authored a perfect ending to his peerless career.
Phelps is beginning the post-swimming phase of his life – the phase where he doesn’t ever have to shave his legs again, if he so chooses. Swimmers shave their bodies for big meets – theoretically to reduce drag, but mostly for the psychological benefit. For Phelps, freedom from the razor is one of the many minor liberations he will experience during his transition away from literal immersion in his sport.
There is a wedding to help plan – a small affair, maybe 50 people, and Phelps will be writing his own vows. There are some special golf rounds to play – one at Pebble Beach, one at Augusta National. There are children to teach about water safety – one of the prime focuses of the Michael Phelps Foundation.
His comeback from premature retirement was complete after a five-gold-medal, one-silver swan song, and now Phelps sounds utterly at peace with his impending retirement. He hasn’t yet sent in the signed paperwork to USA Swimming, opting out of doping control and making it official, but that will happen soon.
“I’m ready to be done,” Phelps said. “That’s the biggest difference this time around than in 2012. I was forcing something in 2012, I wanted it over, I wanted it all to be done, I wanted it out of my life. Here, I was able to come back and finish exactly how I wanted it to be.
“I always said when I hang up my suit I don’t want a what-if. If I stayed away from the sport after 2012, I would have 100 percent regretted that.”
So he came back and swam again. Better than most expected. Well enough to still be the best male swimmer in the world, in his fifth Olympics, finishing his career with 23 gold medals and 28 total.
Trying to sum it all up, my colleague Summer Sanders asked Phelps for a one-word description of each Olympic experience. For 2000, when he was just 15 years old, he said, “inexperienced.” For ’04, when he won six gold medals and two bronze, he didn’t offer an answer. For ’08, the eight-gold masterpiece: “Blurry.” For ’12, the conflicted comeback that resulted in “only” four gold and two silver: “Terrible.”
And for 2016? That answer was, “Perfect.”
Easier to walk away feeling satisfied from perfection than from something you remember as terrible.
“When I was hunched over after the [medley] relay [Saturday night], it was a quick fast-forward to everything I had gone through in my career. That’s when I was like, ‘Holy [expletive], that’s over. It’s done.’
“I felt happy. That was a huge change from London.”
The two biggest reasons for Phelps’ happiness were nearby. Fiancee Nicole Johnson held three-month-old Boomer Phelps in her arms as Michael did his interviews. Phelps’ stint in recovery in late 2014 went a long way toward releasing him from some destructive behaviors and toxic thinking, and starting a family has taken him even further into a better place.
“When he was born I was able to find the true feeling of what love is,” Phelps said. “On the first night [after Boomer’s birth] I just stared at him – I didn’t pick him up, I didn’t do anything. I was just like, ‘That’s my son.’ I can’t get over how fast he grows. I saw him three weeks ago in Atlanta, and he’s huge now.
“Every parent I’ve talked to said, ‘Wait ‘til you see how fast time flies.’ That’s something I don’t want to miss. I want to be there every step of the way with him.”
If young Boomer wants to become a swimmer, that’s OK with his dad. And if he doesn’t, that’s OK, too. Genetics alone don’t predispose anyone to become a great athlete, and swimming is perhaps more geared to a mental toughness – a willingness to embrace the unrelenting daily grind – than most sports. It takes a rare breed to excel, and a rarer breed to dominate the world for more than a decade the way Phelps did.
But someday, at some point in time, some kid with a similar combination of talent and passion will come along and take a swing at Phelps’ currently untouchable records.
Any advice for that kid, Michael?
“I would tell him just to have fun and be himself,” Phelps said. “For me it was like, I had a little bit of advice, but I’m thankful to have learned the things I learned throughout my journey. Some of it sucked and some of it was brutal, but I think it’s made me who I am today. I would never change that.
“I’m in the best place in my life with all my relationships – with Nicole, my family, my friends, and I feel the best I’ve ever felt in the pool.”
He feels good enough to walk away. Let the leg hair grow, Michael, and don’t look back.