Michael Phelps was on Today this morning, once again being asked if he’s really competed at his last Olympics, making Matt Lauer the latest person to refuse to believe Phelps is not going to go to Rio in 2016. How can Phelps make this any clearer? “I’m done,’’ he said. “I’m finished. I’m retired. I’m done. No more.” Yeah, but seriously. “The biggest thing is I can look back at my career and say I’ve done everything exactly the way I wanted to, and if you can say that, I’m happy. I’m satisfied,” Phelps said. Matt, I believe, successfully read between the lines: Phelps hates to lose, and he wants to go out on top. Normally, that notion would be applauded, but someone in the Today crowd actually booed the greatest Olympian of all time after he laughed off Matt’s psychoanalysis and again assured him, “I will not be coming back, we’ll just leave it at that.”
I get it: Enough athletes have come out of retirement to make us skeptical, Phelps is notoriously competitive, everyone loves a comeback story, and he’s only 27. What else is he going to do besides travel (may we suggest The Amazing Race), cage-dive with great whites in South Africa with Chad Le Clos (which better be a Shark Week 2013 special), buy a racehorse (he’s thinking about naming it Schmitty), and perfect his golf game (for a celebrity tournament)? Whatever he wants to! I think that’s the point. I love seeing the smile he gets on his face talking about 15-year-old gold medalist Katie Ledecky. (It’s there again when Lauer brings her up.) When Phelps is ready to return to the pool on a daily basis, maybe it will be as a coach, and one day, we’ll see him tearing up on the deck of an Olympic warmup pool like Bob Bowman did.
In order to let Phelps go, maybe we all just need to say, for one final time, what we’ll miss. I’ll start.
• ‘Shipping him and his training partner Allison Schmitt. I know he has a girlfriend, and she’s referred to him as a brother, but he’s always talking about how much Schmitty makes him smile, and this photo of them holding hands and jumping into the pool at the start of their last workout together has the When Harry Met Sally… fan in me hoping they’ll end up together in
three months 12 years and three months.
• Wondering what color his Sol Republic headphones will be. And also why he likes to wear the robe instead of pants pre-race. I assume because it makes him feel more like Rocky.
• Marveling at the Ivan Drago-esque displays of his popularity, like this creepy one in Omaha during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
It really does look like something out of Rocky IV. “I know. It was crazy,” Rowdy Gaines told me before heading to London call the Olympics. “He’s transcended the sport, no doubt. Are we ever gonna be football, or baseball, or basketball, the big three? No. But I think he has changed our sport…. He hosted Saturday Night Live for cryin’ out loud. That’s a swimmer! The most people I ever had watch me swim was like 13, and half of those were my family, until the Olympics. A big reason why there were 15,000 people every night in Omaha at this year’s Olympic trials was because of Michael. That’s something we should appreciate and be on the edge of our seat every time we watch him swim.”
• That chance to watch him swim. I’d never really thought about attending a swim meet live until I watched YouTube videos shot by spectators at this year’s trials. Watching on TV, you get an incredible view, but because the camera is focused on the swimmers (obviously), you don’t really get to see the people in the crowd rising to their feet for the last 50 meters of the 200 Fly. Watch it happen in the video below, around 1:30. (And then enjoy some pyrotechnics! Dragooooooo!)
I just have to accept that once every four years, I’ll regret never having seen Phelps swim in-person. And then I have to remember that while I never got to scream along with 15,000 people, I did get to chest-bump with my sister after the 4×200 free relay and the 200 IM last week — something that we, and all the friends who witnessed it, will never forget. To quote Phelps quoting Dr. Seuss on Twitter, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
• Reading tweets announcing it’s his “nap time.”