LONDON – When Michael Phelps left the swimming pool for the last time, he was carrying two things:
In his right hand was a statue from FINA, the international governing body of swimming. It had been presented to him earlier Sunday night, after winning his 22nd and final Olympic medal – 18 of them gold, including the last one as part of the United States' 400-meter medley relay. The inscription on the trophy declared Phelps, "The Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time."
In his left hand was an old, dingy orange foam kickboard. Its nickname: "Big O." Phelps has had it forever, dating to when he was just a kid with raw talent and big dreams.
Those two items tell the story of Michael Phelps.
How do you become the most decorated Olympian ever? How do you transform a fringe sport? How do you transport yourself to a pinnacle of achievement and celebrity never before enjoyed by a swimmer?
One grueling, muscle-burning, toughness-building, eyes-on-the-prize practice at a time.
Nothing symbolizes the tedious, taxing, interminable work of practice like the kickboard. It's put away when it's time to race, but it's essential equipment during training. You can't become a great swimmer without a great kick, because the demand on the legs is immense.
That's why rigorous kick sets are a dreaded but necessary staple of every training regimen. Swimmers hold the floating board in front of them and kick for thousands of yards – often until they're cussing their coaches under their breath. Kick sets aren't a lot of fun.
Phelps put in the time with Big O. So much that he became attached enough to the board to name it, keep it for years and turn it into a talisman. So much time that his underwater breakouts on starts and turns – all kick – became the stuff of legend.
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With the help of Big O, Michael Phelps kicked his way to the top – of swimming, and of all Olympic history. And now, on legs built strong with one kick set after another, he is walking away while still at the summit.
For the third straight Olympics, he is the most decorated swimmer: eight medals in Athens – six gold, two bronze – at the age of 19 in 2004, his "Hello, World" moment; eight more in Beijing – all gold – in 2008, a master at the height of his powers; and now six more in London – four gold, two silver – in a display of both fallibility and resilience that ended with three straight golds.
Phelps could keep competing on a more limited scale and try for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but no. There is nothing left to prove, no worlds left to conquer, no meaningful records left to break.
"I've been able to do everything I've wanted," he said. "Bob [Bowman, his coach] and I have somehow managed to do every single thing."
There is not a significant superlative Phelps does not own. Most Olympic medals. Most Olympic gold medals. And if, as some say, swimming skews the numbers because of how many medals are awarded, answer me this: What's the record Phelps surpassed?
Answer: 12. He didn't just surpass that mark of medals won by an individual swimmer, he nearly doubled it. He's done to the Olympic medal records what Jerry Rice did to NFL receiving records.
Fittingly, the final medal came courtesy of the butterfly. It has been Phelps' signature stroke for as long as America has known him.
He made his first Olympic team at age 15 in 2000 in the 200 butterfly. He set his first world record in that event. Thirteen of his 18 gold medals have featured at least 50 meters of the stroke, and he is the reigning world-record holder in both the 100 and 200.
His 100 meters of fly Saturday afforded a final chance to watch the greatest butterflyer of all-time make the hardest stroke look easy. Chin skimming just above the water line, breathing every stroke in perfect rhythm and balance, arms extending, hands landing almost delicately in front of him to pull water, feet pounding out a thunderous two-beat dolphin kick.
After Matt Grevers swam backstroke and Brendan Hansen breaststroke, Phelps started the third leg of the relay in second place, trailing the Japanese relay by .21 seconds. He fell slightly further behind at the 50-meter mark, but then flashed his trademark closing power.
What makes the Phelps butterfly better than everyone else's is the forward surge at the end of every stroke. When his arms are completing their pull past his hips and his feet are on the down-thrust of his kick – thank you, Big O – Phelps rockets ahead on a different trajectory than any other butterflyer.
And so he powered past Takeshi Matsuda, who earned himself a historical footnote as the last swimmer to be beaten to the wall by Michael Phelps. America regained the lead by .26 seconds, and Phelps exited the pool in time to watch freestyler Nathan Adrian lock up the gold medal in the final 100.
By then the entire Aquatics Centre had turned its adoration toward Phelps. This was his valediction, and everyone was eager to pay him the proper respects. The ovations rained down as Phelps and his relay mates took their victory lap around the pool, then the other three Americans peeled off the stage. This was when Phelps was presented with the FINA statue, a silvery sort of avant-garde Winged Victory.
He took another victory lap with the statue. When he got around to where the American team was sitting, Phelps stepped into the stands and embraced Bowman.
"I love you," Bowman told the man he has coached since he was a boy.
"We did it," Phelps said to Bowman.
"Yes, we did," Bowman said in reply.
There may not be a better or deeper athlete-coach relationship than Phelps and Bowman. In a sport where switching coaches is an eventuality at some point, they were together for 15 years. Phelps never holds a formal press conference without Bowman at his side. They have survived Bowman's intensity and Phelps' crisis in commitment and come through it together.
[ Photos: Michael Phelps with all his Olympic medals ]
But it goes beyond that. In many ways Bowman has been the father figure Phelps hasn't had since a very young age, and Phelps is the son bachelor Bowman does not have.
"I love him to death," Phelps said. "I'm thankful to have somebody who cares so much for me. I literally can't thank him enough."
Right before the final race, Phelps tried to thank Bowman. They were in the warm-down pool, the place where Bowman said they have had their most meaningful connections over the years. Before Phelps completed his final pre-race drill – the same one as always in their ritualistic preparation – he called Bowman to the side of the pool.
"I've been able to become the greatest of all time," Phelps told Bowman. "And we got here together. Thank you."
Bowman felt the tears flow. When Phelps got out of the water Bowman told him it wasn't fair to make him cry and then swim off. Phelps responded that he could at least hide his own tears behind his goggles.
Bowman smiled thinking about the Phelps he has known "since he was a kid in a Speedo playing games at the pool" and how much he has grown up. At age 27, he has matured before a nation's eyes.
"He didn't have an appreciation of the bigger picture," Bowman said. "Now I think he really appreciates what sports mean."
Blessed with newfound perspective, Phelps graciously granted one request after another Saturday night. The U.S. Olympic Committee hustled him out of the press conference at the swimming venue to take him to the Main Press Center for another formal interview – but first he posed for a picture with workers from the swimming venue, then took one with a group from FINA. He also stood for a picture with Chinese distance star Sun Yang, who nervously fumbled through his backpack to find his phone.
When the photos were done, it was time for Phelps, his statue and his orange kickboard to jump in a car and head to the Main Press Center. He was ushered into the shotgun seat of a Citroen sedan. The model: a Picasso. It was a fitting ride for an artist upon completion of his final masterpiece.