OMAHA, Neb. -- In a little over a month, it will all be over. Michael Phelps will climb out of the pool at the London Aquatics Center and take off his cap and goggles for the last time.
He'll likely retire as the most decorated Olympian ever, needing just three medals to earn that distinction. His impact on the sport of swimming cannot be exaggerated. When he first met Peter Carlisle, the man who would later become his agent, Phelps said his goal was to change the sport of swimming. But he never could have imagined 14,000 fans filling an arena for a week to watch the Olympic trials. He never could have pictured those same trials being broadcast in prime time on network television for an entire week.
For the past two decades, Phelps has spent part of nearly every single day in the pool. At first, it was an exercise outlet for a hyper 7-year-old. It later became competitive. Then, it became a multimillion-dollar business. But soon, the exhausting early-morning workouts, massages, ice baths and on-deck battles with coach Bob Bowman will all be over. Michael Phelps will have to answer only to himself, and he'll be able to use his time to do whatever it is he wants to do.
Despite the urgings of his mom, Debbie, and others close to him, Phelps insists he will not swim in Rio in four years. There will be no Brendan Hansen-like comeback. Instead, there will be seven events in London, two head-to-head wars against rival and friend Ryan Lochte. And then retirement ... and he couldn't be more excited.
Tuesday morning, a day after his final race at the trials, I sat down with Phelps at his hotel for a brief chat about what he is thinking and feeling as he prepares for the final 50 meters of his professional career.
Question from Drehs: You've talked about being sentimental, you noted the trials was your last meet on U.S. soil. Have you thought about or pictured the moment where you will walk out of a pool for the last time and what that might feel like?
Answer from Phelps: Somebody asked me that last night. I had dinner with some of my friends and that's what they were saying -- What are the emotions that are running through your head right now? And it's really weird because I don't even know. Somebody told me last night after drug testing, I was coming to see you guys [reporters] and somebody was like, "You know that's your last swim on American soil," and I just never thought about that. I realized that was my last Olympic trials meet ever, but I never realized that was my last race on American soil.
It's kind of just a bunch of mixed emotions and I'm not sure what I will think the last time I walk out of what is hopefully the 400 medley relay in London. That will be the last race of the meet, and once I walk out, I'm sure I'll be throwing my arms all over the place being ecstatic that I'm done. But deep down inside, I know that this has been a part of my life for so long that, I don't know if I'll feel lost, but it will be weird that swimming won't be a part of my everyday life.
Q: What do you want people to say about your legacy when it's over?
A: People can say whatever they want; that's really how it's always been. I've read good things, I've read bad things. Whatever people want to write about me is out of my control. ... If I can look back at my career and say I've done everything I wanted, I don't care. Whatever somebody writes, they can write. As long as I'm happy when I hang my suit up and retire, that's all I care about.
Q: What are you most excited about in your post-swimming career?
A: Traveling, for one thing. Being able to ... I've been able to go to so many cool cities throughout the world and I haven't been able to see them. I've been to amazing places, all through Europe and Australia, Asia. I don't see it. I see the hotel and I see the pool. So for me to be able to travel, I think, and experience some of the cities is something I'm really looking forward to. To be able to go wherever I want to go, do whatever I want to do. After 30 days, we'll be traveling and having some fun. But also still working. There are still things I want to do outside of the pool and those goals will take some time. There are things that excite me.
Q: Like what?
A: When Peter and I first met, that's when I said that I wanted to change the sport of swimming and, sure, it's changed a boatload over the last 12 years. But I think it can change more. There can be a lot cooler things that we can do and have some fun with. I may not know what they are now, but over time, I'm sure we can figure out something that brings more excitement. We can do some things the sport has never seen before. The sky's the limit on where it can go. To keep growing my IM program, teaching more and more kids to be water-safe and live healthy and active lifestyles. For me, kids make me the happiest in the world. You see a true smile on my face with kids. These guys are the ones who are going to be taking over our shoes and swimming in the lanes that we swim in and swimming for our country, so anything I can do to help them.
Q: Are you 100 percent sure this is the end?
A: Yeah, definitely.
Q: But we've seen so many swimmers swear they were done and make comebacks. Brendan Hansen, Anthony Ervin. Your door is closed [after London]?
A: It's closed.
A: I just don't want to swim over the age of 30. That's the biggest thing. I just also don't want to be like ... I said this the other day ... I don't want to come back 20 years from now and have people be like, "Who's this guy giving medals out? What's this guy doing?" I don't want to be that guy who comes back and people are like, "Why is he doing this?" I set out to accomplish the goals that I have and that I'm trying to [accomplish] now and that's it. I'm not going to have swimming for the rest of my life. I know when enough is enough. These last four years were hard, and it's only going to be harder from here on out. It's time to hang the suit up and do some other things.
Q: Bob has played such an important role in your life. How do you see your relationship with him evolving post-swimming?
A: He has been there every step of the way for every part of my life, in the good times and the bad times. We've had some of the most amazing times together and the support that he's given me, it's incredible. We have a great relationship. He is part of our family. So I see our relationship continuing how it is, just not on that everyday level that we have now where we are walking into the door and spending hours on end with each other and he's yelling at me to go up and down the pool faster.
Q: So a more normal relationship.
A: Yeah, definitely. I'm looking forward to it. I know he said he wanted to play golf, so put him and I on the golf course. That will get interesting.
Q: So who has the better game?
A: He hasn't played in a while so I would say ... I would obviously take myself. But no, it will be fun. And I think we're both looking forward to kind of a break from one another and a break from the everyday pushing that we have and the grind that we have. I think he's looking for a break from me, as well.
Q: I saw you aren't going to swim the 200 free in London. What's the thought process behind that?
A: I'm not going out to re-create what I did in Beijing [in 2008]. That happened because everything fell into place at the right time. For me, doing this program this week was challenging, but I proved to myself that I can do it. But also thinking you have the possibility of adding three relays. So add three relays, plus all the heats, it would be like 17 races total in eight days. I just don't want to take away from other races. My semifinal swim in the 200 wasn't very good and that's kind of a big race for me. Just having that extra morning off is going to make a big difference. Having that morning off going to the 100 fly ... having another session off is going to help me stay peppy and fresh for the whole entire meet and not jeopardize something else in a different race. It just seems to make sense that's the perfect race to drop and that's the right time.
Q: And then you won't have people ask you every day if you want to win or if you can win eight gold medals.
A: That's obviously something that I won't have to hear. But you guys will ask seven now, so it's the same thing.