Vahe Gregorian

Michael Phelps makes grand finale ... unless it’s just another false stop

Michael Phelps celebrated with his U.S. teammates during the medal ceremony for the men's 4 x 00-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Michael Phelps celebrated with his U.S. teammates during the medal ceremony for the men's 4 x 00-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Associated Press

Shortly before what was advertised as the final performance of Michael Phelps’ extraterrestrial Olympics career, Phelps cradled a lifetime achievement award of sorts from FINA, the governing body of the sport.It declared him “The Greatest Olympic Athlete Of All Time,” a reasonable assertion that seemed particularly appropriate at the apparent end of an epic era.

He’s “done all he can do here,” coach Bob Bowman said, and it was revolutionary and jaw-dropping.

“I’ve been able to become the best swimmer of all time,” Phelps said in one breath, though perhaps less sure of the loftier designation on the trophy that he called “kind of weird.”

But enough about London 2012, when Phelps added four gold medals and six overall to give him a preposterous overall haul of 18 golds and 22 total.

Four years later, now more than twice the age he was when he qualified for his first Olympic berth at 15 years and 2 months old, the 31-year-old on Saturday added his sixth medal and fifth gold of the Rio Olympics as part of the 4x100-meter individual medley.

That’s 23 golds and 28 Olympic medals (out of 30 events he competed in) through four Olympics.

And he seriously wants us to believe this is really it again?

How could Phelps not have 2020 (Tokyo) vision after this?

As my father likes to say, you can fool an Armenian once, you can can fool an Armenian twice … but you can’t fool us indefinitely.

But for now, let’s just focus on this.

It turns out he hadn’t done all he can do here.

It also turns out that even as the numbers begin to be rendered incomprehensible in their infiniteness he actually distinguished himself in a new day in the last week:

When he seized his 13th individual gold medal on Thursday in the 200 IM, Phelps snuffed good ol’ Leonidas of Rhodes’ 2,168 year-run with the most individual gold medals (12).

Of course, Leonidas achieved his record over four ancient Olympiads from 164-152 B.C in running events that included the hoplitodromos -- run in fully body armor and lugging a shield.

So maybe it’s unfair to suggest the legend of Leonidas is eclipsed by Phelps – and the modern ramifications are ample enough for someone it’s easy to forget did not actually come from Krypton.

Everybody comes from somewhere, as a friend put it Saturday, and this is how it started for Phelps:

His mother, Debbie, and father, Fred, got their children into swimming to learn water safety.

Years ago in a phone interview, Debbie Phelps said he spent his first few visits to the pool as a 7-year-old “kind or running around and bumming food off everybody.” And he didn’t like to get his face wet, either.

From all this bubbled forth a matchless legacy cemented long ago when he won eight gold medals in Beijing.

But the numbers are only a part of what Phelps has meant to the sport, particularly for a U.S. swimming team that surpassed its record trove of 31 medals and 16 golds in London with 33 and 16 this time around.

“I wanted to change the sport of swimming,” he said Friday night. “That’s what I wanted to do, and I think with the people that we have in the sport now, I think you're seeing it. …

“Daring kids to dream, that’s the only reason why I'm sitting here. I was a little kid with a dream and it turned into a couple of medals, pretty good couple years of swimming and I had a blast.

“So the more kids that I can, one, help become water safe but, two, also just believe in themselves (the better. And) not be afraid to know that the sky is the limit.”

Several Team USA athletes have been spotted (literally) with round purple or red marks. An acupuncturist says these are the telltale signs of an ancient Chinese medicine practice called cupping. She explains why elite athletes may find it useful.

There must be a million ways, tangible and intangible, that speak to his influence on the sport.

But here is a simple one.

Katie Ledecky grew up idolizing Phelps and as a 9-year-old had her picture taken with him as she got his autograph.

Now 19, she won four gold medals in Rio to give her six (including five golds) in two Games.

Incidentally, that’s just one fewer gold than Phelps had at her age.

She is part of a shifting, if not outright changing, of the guard.

On Thursday night, she stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to greet her roommate in the Athletes’ Village, Simone Manuel, after Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal when she tied Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle.

She in herself represents a new frontier, a model that might make young African-American girls say “I got next” as they seem themselves for the first time on such a stage.

On Saturday night, Manuel, 20, earned silver in the 50 free and gold in the women’s 4x100 IM along with teammates Lilly King (19), Kathleen Baker (19) and Dana Vollmer (the 28-year-old just 17 months removed from giving birth to son Arlen.).

That gold was the 1,000th in U.S. Olympic history, and it portends many more ahead.

A few minutes later came the 1001st, with Phelps aboard for what may or may not be the last time.

“I’ve been able to do everything I put my mind to in the sport,” he had said Friday night, sounding much like he had in London.

Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star spoke with Kevin Hall of the McClatchy DC bureau on Tuesday for an update on the Rio Summer Olympics. They look at the perspective of the Games from outside the sporting events.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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