The legacy of Michael Phelps is as much in two pictures as it is 27 Olympic medals

MLB columnist

Medal count | Olympic schedule | Olympic news

RIO DE JANEIRO – The other story of Michael Phelps can be told in two pictures.



You know the main story. Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever. In the last individual race of his Olympic career Friday – no, really, seriously, he swears it’s the last one – Phelps won a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly. It was his 27th Olympic medal, 22 of them gold, four of those golds here at the Rio Games that were supposed to be a swan song and ended up another coronation. That is the easy tale that will be told as long as the Olympics are around. That is what he did.

The other story is the effect of what he did, how for a dozen years now Phelps has taken swimming and challenged it to be better. Long before he became the elder statesman he is now – 31 years old, with a child, about to be married, generous with advice, wise with his words – Phelps was something more.

The first picture is of Phelps and Katie Ledecky. She won her fourth gold medal of these Olympics on Friday night, setting a world record in the 800-meter freestyle and treating the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium like her personal splash zone. The silver medalist finished more than 11 seconds behind her. She is 19 years old. She has five Olympic gold medals and a silver. She is the future of swimming.

The second picture is of Phelps and Joseph Schooling. It was taken in Singapore when Schooling was 8. He was a swimming prodigy who moved to the United States at 13 to train in Florida. He distinguished himself in the 100-meter butterfly and won two NCAA titles at Texas. In the last individual race of Michael Phelps’ Olympic career on Friday night, Schooling beat him. He is 21 years old.

As much as Phelps’ legacy is the 22 golds and 27 medals, he leaves behind something even more dear to him: a generation of children who wanted to be like him more than anybody ever has wanted to be like any other swimmer.

“We’ve all seen the photo of Katie and I when she was 9 or 10 and the photo of Joe and I,” Phelps said. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming. That’s what I wanted to do. With the people in the sport now, I think you’re seeing it.”

Michael Phelps congratulates Joseph Schooling. (Reuters)
Michael Phelps congratulates Joseph Schooling. (Reuters)

The Olympics are going to be worse without Phelps, and not just because his races are appointment viewing and his accomplishments history heaped on top of history. Phelps’ greatness begat another sort of greatness: the unimpeachable future filled with those who want to be like him. Around the stadium Friday, they chanted at him the same thing they had in London four years earlier: “Four more years. Four more years.” Even Schooling asked whether he would consider it. The answer was the same for everyone.

“No. I’m not going four more years,” Phelps said. “I’m standing by that. Guys, I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever put my mind to in this sport, in 24 years in this sport. I’m happy with how things finished. That’s why I came back after ’12. 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.”

Never had Phelps looked so thrilled to win silver. (Admittedly, this was only his third.) He stood on the medal stand next to Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, two of his greatest rivals who touched the wall at the exact hundredth of a second Phelps did to share the silver with him. Le Clos suggested they hold hands before they ascend the podium, and so they did, pride aside and smiles abundant.

Above them stepped Schooling, having finished in an Olympic-record 50.39 seconds, exactly three-quarters of a second before the trio of silvers. “I’m proud of Joe,” Phelps said, and it sounded like he understood the batons he’d passed on to so many of the young Olympians today and the future ones to come.

On the pool deck, as they walked around the stadium, Schooling had confessed something to Phelps.

“I don’t know how to feel right now,” Schooling said.

Phelps didn’t try to tell him. After all his golds, he never misplaced the unique feeling one betroths.

“I know,” Phelps said.

Schooling felt the sincerity. “I’ll really cherish that for the rest of my life,” he said, and not just because it was Michael Phelps. OK, maybe because it was Michael Phelps, but just as much because to have taken that picture all those years ago and now to feel an equal, and a superior for one race, is the sort that only a handful in the world can understand.

This was being knighted by the king, being kissed by the don, being accepted into a fraternity that will continue to grow even without Phelps in the pool. Swimming may always be a niche sport, but it is a niche sport with cachet, the kind that cannot be looked down upon because Phelps showed evermore the legitimate badass-ery packed inside of a person’s arms, legs and core.

If he is true to his word, Michael Phelps will swim one more race in the Olympics, the 4×100-meter medley relay on Saturday night. He’ll get one more crack at 100 meters of butterfly, and then he’ll be done, off to spend time with his kid and his wife-to-be, to travel the world, to turn his business ventures into an empire. Swimming will survive without Phelps at its forefront because of his contribution. His legacy is his medals, yes, but it’s also the gift he gave it. He changed the sport for the better. The proof is in the pictures.

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