Once reluctant to lead, Michael Phelps fully embracing role at final Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO – It’s hard to believe that there were unchecked items on Michael Phelps’ Olympic Bucket List, but there were. Until Wednesday.

In a flourish, the most decorated Olympian has now rounded out the greatest of all five-ring résumés with two new honors: he was voted a U.S. swimming captain and the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. That means he also will attend the Opening Ceremony for the first time in five appearances in the Summer Games.

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“It’s a dream come true to lead our country in this Olympics,” Phelps said at a news conference here Wednesday. “It’s something I honestly never thought I’d have the opportunity to do. I think I had the biggest smile on my face you could find. I probably shed a few tears, just of joy.”

In his final Olympic incarnation, there is yet another new side to the constantly evolving Michael Phelps. He now is a true global citizen. He now is a true leader of men and women.

[Eric Adelson: Why Phelps shouldn’t bear the flag]

As recently as a month ago, at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Phelps said he was unlikely to walk in the Opening Ceremony. Most swimmers don’t because their competition begins the next day, and the hours spent on your feet are antithetical to the rest-rest-rest mindset those athletes take into a major competition.

But for the first time since 2000, Phelps is not competing in the most grueling of events – the 400-meter individual medley, which is contested on the first day of the swim meet. His first swim isn’t likely to come until Sunday as a member of the 400 freestyle relay. (Nobody was confirming his presence on that relay, but a brisk time trial swim during training camp last week in Atlanta almost assuredly put him on that team.)

Given that decrease in workload – and given the honor of becoming just the second swimmer in American Olympic history to carry the stars and stripes – Phelps was eager to lead his teammates and countrymen into Maracanã Stadium.

But he still had to clear it with his forever coach, Bob Bowman, who also is doubling as the head coach of the American men’s team.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how much would (walking in the Opening Ceremony) affect me?” Phelps asked Bowman. “If it’s 8.0, there’s no question I’m doing it.”

Bowman teasingly gave Phelps a 7.8.

“I said, ‘It’s a no-brainer. I’d love to do it,’ ” Phelps recalled.

So the 31-year-old will get a new experience in his final go-round. But for all the symbolism of carrying the flag, the substance of being a team captain is even greater.

Just because Phelps was the best swimmer on the American team in 2004, ’08 and ’12, that didn’t mean he was the best leader. He was fine with letting that responsibility go to others.

For one thing, he was the busiest swimmer at each of those Games, given the workload that goes into winning 22 medals. But Phelps also was more comfortable closing himself off in his own cocoon of greatness and focusing on himself.

“I think in 2008 and 2012 Michael didn’t think he was a leader, let alone a captain,” said former breaststroker Brendan Hansen, a teammate of Phelps’ on both those Olympic teams. “I remember talking with him about speaking up in team meetings because his experiences and mindset were so valuable to the team. He did a much better job in 2012 – but from what I’ve heard about 2016, he takes captain very seriously.

“He very much wanted to be part of the team and not lead it in ’08 and ’12. The team support was what he was looking for. But boy did he lead by example in his races those Games. He inspired us all to stop thinking average and take on the world.”

[Fourth-Place Medal: A sneak peek at Phelps’ Opening Ceremony jacket]

Phelps well could lead by example in the pool here, too. He is entered in three individual events and likely will swim two relays, which means his record totals of 22 medals and 18 gold should increase significantly before he retires at the end of this meet.

But as someone who has grown so substantially outside the pool, it’s possible that his greatest contribution to this American swim team could come as sage, mentor and motivator. There are a lot of newcomers on this team, and the month since the end of Olympic trials has been a crucial bonding time for the group.

“It’s been cool as captain to watch the American team come together more and more the closer to competition we get,” Phelps said.

The old Phelps, from Olympics past, wouldn’t have done what he did this week in the Olympic Village. When Phelps saw tennis great Novak Djokovic walking by, he stopped him and struck up a conversation.

“Before, I had my headphone on and I wasn’t talking to anybody,” Phelps said.

But after enduring the public humiliation of a second DUI charge and a subsequent suspension from the U.S. national team, Phelps sought help at an in-patient treatment facility in 2014. His transformation since then continues to amaze. If he’s floating on a pink cloud of recovery that will evaporate beneath him soon, there are no signs of it. He truly seems changed, and is willing to show the world those changes.

In no small part because of his willingness to get outside himself this time around, Phelps’ choice as flag bearer was very popular with his swimming peers.

“It just feels so right,” said Missy Franklin. “It feels right to have the most decorated Olympian of all time leading us – and to have someone who’s overcome so much, in and out of the pool, and been so open about sharing it. That’s what America is all about.”

It’s an American story of redemption and culmination. Captain Phelps, meet Flag-Bearer Phelps.  The new honor of carrying Old Glory will begin the final act of an unmatched Olympic career.

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