Michael Phelps got up to leave his last news conference at the Olympic pool when his relay mates were asked if they thought he would really stay retired.
Before they could answer, Phelps smiled and said emphatically- “Yes, yes.”
The most decorated Olympian called it a career on Saturday night with a fitting ending a gold medal in the 4x100-meter medley relay at the London Games.
Phelps’ totals in four Olympics- 22 medals, 18 golds, 51 races and 9,900 meters of swimming.
“I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted,” he said. “If you can say that about your career, there’s no need to move forward. Time for other things.”
“I’ve been able to see so many amazing places in the world, but I’ve really never gotten to experience them,” Phelps said.
“He needs time for himself first,” his mother Debbie said.
Phelps still plans to be around the sport that made him rich and famous, saying, “I would like to try to take it to an even higher level than it is now.”
Phelps regained the lead in the medley relay with his trademark butterfly stroke, then handed it over to freestyle anchor Nathan Adrian.
Adrian brought it home in 3 minutes, 29.35 seconds. Japan took the silver in 3-31.26 and Australia got the bronze in 3-31.68. The team of Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen, Phelps and Adrian hugged before Phelps waved and smiled to the crowd.
Later, he grew reflective, saying, “I’m a lot more relaxed than I thought I’d be in this moment.”
Warming up before his last race, Phelps called his coach over to the side of the practice pool. He thanked Bob Bowman for helping him win all those medals, a feat they accomplished together.
That private moment got to both of them.
“I said, ‘My tears could hide behind my goggles. Yours are streaming down your face,’” Phelps said. “I wouldn’t be here today without everything he’s done for me. I love him to death.”
Bowman said- “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
On a night when Phelps exited the world stage, Missy Franklin capped a brilliant Olympic debut by helping the US win gold in the women’s medley relay in a world-record time.
The 17-year-old high school student gives the US hope for the post-Phelps era, having won five medals in London, including four golds to match Amy Van Dyken at the 1996 Atlanta Games for the most by an American female swimmer. She swam seven events, the same as Phelps.
“I don’t think his shoes will ever be filled. They’re so huge,” Franklin said. “Hopefully I can make little paths next to him.”
The Americans dominated the medal count at the pool, finishing with 16 golds and 30 overall.
Franklin grabbed the lead right away in the backstroke, and Rebecca Soni stretched out the advantage in the breaststroke. Dana Vollmer cruised through the fly and Allison Schmitt finished it off, pulling away for a time of 3-52.05, beating the mark of 3-52.19 set by China at the 2009 world championships.
It was the second world record of the night and ninth of the Olympic meet, proving fast times are still possible even without banned high-tech bodysuits.
Sun Yang of China won his second gold in the 1,500 freestyle, lowering his own world record with a time of 14-31.02. He also won a gold in the 400 free, tied for the silver in the 200 free, and was part of the bronze medal-winning team in the 4x200 free relay.
Yang dived into the water before the starter’s gun, but was given another chance because the starter heard the same whistle in the crowd that Sun heard, causing him to leave the blocks early.
Canada’s Ryan Cochrane took second in 14-39.63, while defending Olympic champion Ous Mellouli of Tunisia settled for bronze in 14-40.31.
Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands won the women’s 50 freestyle to complete a sweep of the sprints.
Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus touched in 24.28 to take the silver medal and another Dutchwoman, Marleen Veldhuis, finished in 24.39 for the bronze.
Phelps was asked about a comeback in time for the 2016 Rio Games. He gave a definitive no in response, and Bowman doesn’t think he’ll be back, either.
“I guess if he finds after a few years he’s searching for something and thinks he can find it in swimming, he could look at it,” Bowman said. “I think he’s ready to explore other things. He’s done all he can do here.”
Phelps & Bowman- A partnership like no other
Bob Bowman has been there every step of the way for Michael Phelps through all the gold medals, world records, championships and, yes, even the occasional missteps.
They forged one of the most unique relationships in all of sports, a coach who took the child of recently divorced parents under his wing at age 11 and nurtured him to greatness in the pool. Along the way, they’ve yelled and screamed at each other and butted heads from time to time. They also developed an enduring relationship that surely will last a lifetime, even with Phelps retiring after his final race of the Olympics on Saturday.
Phelps has never considered working with another coach, a truly remarkable bond in the world of sports, where it’s common for athletes to switch their coaches on a regular basis, to work with someone new when there’s the slightest slump in performance or simply a need to have someone new in their ear, doling out advice.
Tiger Woods, for instance, is on his third coach since turning pro.
It’s impossible to imagine Phelps with anyone other than Bowman.
“Bob knows Michael like the back of his hand,” said Phelps’ mother, Debbie. “Michael knows Bob’s going to get him where he needs to be not only in the pool, but life.”
She chokes up a bit, knowing how important the 47—year—old Bowman has been to her son. It would be easy to say he became a father figure to Phelps after his parents divorced and his dad largely fell out of his life. But, really, their relationship runs even deeper than that, working well on many levels athlete—coach, parent—child, business partners, best friends.
“We have a great relationship,” Phelps said. “Obviously, we have our days on and off where we can get at each other, but I think the biggest thing is we’re both very passionate people, and that’s why we’ve worked so well together over the last couple of ... well, a long time. Geez.”
While Phelps is extremely guarded about who he lets into his inner circle, and reticent about revealing too many of his emotions to the outside world, there are no secrets between these two. They love to poke at each other Bowman knowing just what to say to get under Phelps’ skin, the swimmer throwing the occasional tantrum but usually going along with whatever the coach wants him to do.
“We both love what we do and we want to be the best we can,” Phelps said. “I trust him. When I was 11 years old, I trusted him. I don’t know why I did then, but I did.”
“You were brave,” Bowman quipped.
While Bowman describes himself as a mediocre swimmer his real knack was teaching others how to swim. His hard—nosed methods aren’t for everyone. Katie Hoff switched to Bowman after the 2008 Olympics but was too sensitive to stand up to his verbal berating. Phelps seems to thrive on it, spurred on to prove his coach wrong when he doles out a tongue—lashing.
“It works,” Phelps said. “I have full trust in him, and he has been the one person that’s got me where I am today. He’s the best coach for me.”
There’s no disputing the results.
Phelps is the most—decorated Olympian in history and captured his 18th gold medal in his final race, the 4x100—meter medley relay. That would leave him with twice as many golds as anyone else. In all, he’s captured 22 medals, plus a staggering 26 long—course world championships in off—Olympic years.
By the numbers, no one comes close a tribute to the athlete, first and foremost, but also to his coach.
“I would say the reason we have so well together is that we are both absolutely honest with each other all the time,” Bowman said. “We know exactly where each other stands at all times. That can mean some fireworks sometimes, because neither one of us likes to back down on anything. But I think that’s the deal. We don’t really play any games. We just keep it simple.”
That’s the way Phelps likes it.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about their relationship is how so little seems to have changed over the years.
Sure, Phelps has grown from a boy to a man, maturing a lot but also stumbling along the way a drunken—driving arrest in 2004, a three—month suspension by USA Swimming in 2009 after he was pictured inhaling from a marijuana pipe. Both insist there is more of an equal partnership, with Phelps exerting more control over his life and his training regimen.
But, really, there’s little doubt who’s in charge.
Right up to the very end of his career, Phelps rarely attended a news conference without Bowman at his side. When the coach thought it best for Phelps to drop one of the events he qualified for this year at the US Olympic trials, there was no push back from Phelps. In fact, even Bowman is surprised at how much influence he has over one of the most famous athletes in the world.
“He likes the way we do it, and still does today, which is really odd,” the coach said. “I’ve tried to even change some things for him, some mental things, and he’s like, ‘We’ve never done this before.’”
Bowman believes it might have something to do with Phelps being diagnosed with attention—deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child.
“He likes his routine,” the coach said. “It helps him to manage things when they’re predictable and he knows what they are.”
After Phelps won six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, Bowman left the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to take over as the coach at the University of Michigan. Phelps went along with him, training and taking a few classes though he never seriously pursued a degree. When Bowman returned to the Baltimore club a few years later, Phelps came back, too.
“It’s very unusual, particularly since we’ve been in a couple of different environments,” Bowman conceded. “That probably helped, actually. If we had just stayed in Baltimore, we would not have had that variety.
“I honestly think we’ve been together so long because I’m just real honest with him. I have said many times, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine. I understand. But I tell him, ‘This is how we’re going to it.’ And he’s always like, ‘OK, this is how we’re going to do it.’”
For someone who’s about to lose the most famous athlete he’ll likely ever coach, Bowman seems at peace with Phelps’ decision to retire at age 27. And Bowman plans to spend at least a year NOT doing what he does so well. Instead, he’ll do some travelling, some work at his swim club, and devote some time to his other big passion, horse racing.
You’ll be more likely to see him at the Kentucky Derby than on a pool deck.
“I’ll still be running my team, doing some stuff like that,” Bowman said. “I’m just going to try to not be quite so rigidly scheduled for a year. Then I’ll go back into it and see how it’s going.”
Rest assured, he’s not going to nag Phelps to make a comeback before the next Olympics.
And he’s not going to look for the next Phelps, either.
“No, no, no,” Bowman said adamantly. “I can’t do that again. One is plenty, trust me.”