RIO DE JANEIRO - For a swimmer who said he was done with the sport after the 2012 London Olympics, American Michael Phelps put on a performance at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics that left most at a loss for words.
In the final swimming event at 2016 Summer Games, the 31-year-old Phelps capped off his incomparable Olympic career with a gold medal in the men's 4x100-meter medley relay. It gave him five golds and one silver medal in Rio, and 23 career golds in his total of 28 Olympic medals.
“This is special because I’m just able to start the next chapter of my life. I’m retiring, but I’m not done done with swimming,” Phelps said. “This is just the start of something new.”
There's a good chance he could go into coaching, maybe even assist his longtime-time swim coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University.
Phelps' other gold medals in Rio came in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays, the 200m individual medley and the 200m butterfly, the stroke he is most famous for and the one he swam in the medley relay. He also won a silver medal in the 100m butterfly.
After winning his final gold, Phelps and his relay teammates huddled together poolside and he told them, “It's been an honor swimming with you in my last race.”
“Last race?” they asked Phelps. “Come on,” as they laughed sarcastically. “Four more years!”
Later to reporters Phelps said, “I might be there (at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics), but I won't be in the pool . This is it. I'm done. I couldn't be happier with how I finished my career. There's no better way than finishing with a gold medal. That's for sure.”
So with no Phelps, who might take over as the new face of American swimming? Most are betting on 19-year-old Katie Ledecky. At age 15 at the 2012 London Olympics she surprisingly won the women's 800-meter freestyle. Since then her career has skyrocketed.
At the 2013 World Championships she won four gold medals and broke two world records. The freestyle specialist did even better at last year's World Championships, winning five gold medals (200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle, and 4x200m freestyle relay) and breaking three world records.
In Rio, Ledecky took gold in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle (there is no women's 1,500m freestyle at the Olympics), and the 4x200m freestyle relay, and silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay. She shattered her own world records in both the 400m and 800m.
“I've met my goals and I think, more importantly, I've had more fun than I could have ever imagined," Ledecky told reporters at a news conference the day after her final swim in Rio.
Flashing a big smile throughout the session, Ledecky, who lives the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, has remained an amateur swimmer, and not long after she returns from Rio she will head off for college at Stanford University in California.
“I only really want to represent myself, my family, my coach and my teammates. I don't feel like I need to represent something bigger than that right now,” she said. “I think down the road I would love to be a professional swimmer, but first and foremost I want to get a really great education and have the opportunities that collegiate swimming brings, and to do that I've had to remain an amateur and I've really enjoyed it.”
Overall, the United States led all nations in the swim events with 33 medals, 16 gold. Australia and Hungary were a distant second with three gold medals each. The Australians won 10 total medals in swimming, while Hungary and Japan each had seven. Sixteen nations in all won Rio swimming medals, but host nation Brazil was shut out.
History was made in the 100-meter butterfly where Phelps won silver. Twenty-one-year-old Joseph Schooling touched the wall first, becoming the first ever Olympic champion from Singapore.
And the U.S. Olympic team also achieved a milestone on the final night of swimming. When the women's 4x100m medley relay team won the gold medal, it was the 1,000th gold medal all-time for Team USA at the Summer Games, dating back to the first modern Olympics in 1896.
“One thousand gold medals is a remarkable achievement made possible by the culture of sport that is the fabric and foundation of Team USA,” said U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun. “This is an accomplishment we celebrate together.”