Why Phelps isn't lying: He's done
LONDON -- Michael Phelps is done. It's a wrap.
The American swimmer jumped into the pool for the third leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay in second place, and climbed out of it having put his team in the lead en route to a gold medal Saturday night. It was his 18th Olympic gold medal and 22nd of any kind. It couldn't have ended any sweeter. He hugged his teammates and his mama, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," gave in to some tears and bid adieu. Michael Fred Phelps II has left the building, boys and girls, for good.
I believe him.
Phelps had said for years he would get out of the business of competitive swimming by age 18. He started taking Sundays off when he never would a kid on the way up. He said he wants to travel, see something in Europe and Australia and South Africa besides a pool and hotel rooms. But here is the sentence that convinces me that, even at age 27, Phelps is absolutely done for good and not going to walk through that door before Rio in 2016:
"I accomplished every goal I ever wanted to ... I've done everything I ever wanted to do ... and, at that point, it's just time to move on."
It's no secret what the cynics among you are thinking. No one goes out like this at 27. He'll miss it more than he knows -- the ovations, the adrenaline rush that comes from touching the wall first, beating the next Ian Thorpe or Ryan Lochte or some punk kid who pops off and gets under his skin, the satisfaction of being the very best at something that has been done a very long time. You're thinking Phelps, like so many of the truly iconic athletes before him, men and women of his ilk, will find nothing to fill the void. You're thinking he, like Michael Jordan, whom he so admires, will never be able to find that next goal, the goal that motivated him the way swimming competitively did.
Oh, you can line up a string of arguments to support the position that Phelps is going to give in and come back to do just an event or two in Brazil.
Jordan, who like Phelps accomplished everything he could accomplish in one athletic lifetime, nevertheless couldn't stay retired, and couldn't stay retired a second time, either.
Ray Leonard, a Maryland boy just like Phelps, who won Olympic gold and conquered his sport at an impossibly young age just like Phelps, retired in 1982 and was back by 1984. He retired again and then was back to fight Marvin Hagler in 1987.
Lance Armstrong, yet another Olympian, who was very much to cycling what Phelps is to swimming, retired in 2005 but was back by 2009 for two more years of competition.
You want to stay with "Olympians Who Can't Help Themselves" for $800, Alex? Magic Johnson retired in 1991 because of the most extreme circumstance imaginable, yet after five NBA championships, one NCAA title and one Olympic gold medal, he couldn't resist the pull and was back in 1996.
Mario Lemieux, another Olympian, retired in 1997, again from extreme circumstances, and came back in 2000 to play for another six years.
George Foreman (I could play this game exclusively with Olympians if I wanted to) retired for 10 years. Big George was out of the sport for so long no one had him coming back; but he said to hell with retirement, came back and fought for 10 more years -- even won the heavyweight championship during that second career.
Oh, this inability to stay retired is nothing new. Bob Cousy was six years into retirement and came back to play not at 31, which is how old Phelps would be in 2016, but 41. Couz played seven whole games for the Cincinnati Royals in that second career.
And this itch to do what one does brilliantly doesn't afflict men only. Martina Navratilova, who surely had done everything she had dreamed of doing in her career (such as winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles), was six years into retirement and came back. She won mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open at 46 and now is the oldest Grand Slam winner.
That's just a sampling. I didn't forget Muhammad Ali; his absence in 1967-70 wasn't really voluntary, it was quite forced. Phelps, a Baltimore kid, surely noticed that Deion Sanders retired in 2001 and came back to play for the Ravens in 2004. Justine Henin retired in 2007 while ranked No. 1 in the world, stayed away for 16 months, then returned to play for another couple of years.
I get it. If I had five minutes with Phelps, I'd ask him, considering how much he loves sports and how many professional athletes he knows, if he would ever go to one of the all-time greats, maybe one of the aforementioned, and ask, "What was so difficult about retirement that you went back to play? Once you walked away, why couldn't you stay away?"
Then again, maybe Phelps doesn't need to ask. Maybe he loathes the training so much, he will have no problem staying out of the pool. Maybe he'll be like the truly great athletes on the other list, the ones who stayed retired. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Wayne Gretzky, Baltimore's own Cal Ripken. (OK, Junior was up there in age and didn't have the luxury of sitting around for a few years and saying, "I'm mulling my options." And the last time a sporting man uttered the words "I'm retired" and remained retired while he was this young, healthy, adored, at the top of his game and central to the identity of his sport was possibly Brown.)
I hate to count pro football players. Dan Marino was old and had a serious injury. Troy Aikman was young enough but had those concussions. Football players, by and large, are physically broken to some degree when they retire -- even Brett Favre, who never met a retirement he truly liked. You know who had an even better ending than Phelps, maybe the best ending ever? John Elway. Elway never came back. OK, he was physically broken, too, at 38. Still.
I don't hear an in-the-moment fatigue in Phelps' voice when he says, as he did late Saturday night, "I'm ready to be done, ready to move on to other things." It doesn't seem rash or overly emotional. In fact, Phelps seemed surprised himself when he said, "I'm a lot more relaxed than I thought I'd be in this moment."
It's probably because, while he doesn't get off on saying it aloud, Phelps knows he's the best his sport has ever produced. He knows he's leaving his sport in the best of shape, specifically the U.S. team with young, talented workaholics such as Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky and Allison Schmitt. And no one more than Phelps, in the history of the sport, knows how much dedication and sacrifice it takes to perform at such a level. Phelps doesn't sound resigned to that reality; he sounds relieved it doesn't have to be his reality for another day.
What would he accomplish by coming back? Add one more gold medal? The difference between 18 golds and 19 or 20 golds is what, exactly? People keep saying, "Well, his mother wants to go to Brazil." Like Michael Phelps can't buy his mother a plane ticket to Brazil. If he can't stay retired, he'll get caught in the crosshairs of some young gun and have to hear the same people who begged him to stay say he should have gotten out while he was on top.
Well, he is on top, in a way few athletes ever experience. The bet here is 19 years in the pool has been quite enough for Michael Phelps. In the coming months, he'll figure out that while he's as obsessively competitive as the next icon, there's a price to pay, a dedication and sacrifice that he can thank his lucky stars he had the discipline to maintain but now the good sense to let go.