“I’ve been able to become the best swimmer of all time,” Phelps told Bowman, he recalled later. “I said, ‘We got here together.’ I thanked him.”
That’s when Bowman lost it, spilling tears that would leave his eyes reddened throughout the last night of the Olympic swimming competition, which would feature Phelps’s final act: a gold medal as part of the U.S. 4x100 medley relay team.
“My tears I can hide behind my goggles,” Phelps said to his weeping coach. “Yours are streaming down your face.”
It was a night of tears, reflection and joy as one era ended and another bloomed. Phelps’s final victory came immediately after the U.S. women’s squad, featuring 17-year-old Missy Franklin, went under the world record in the 4x100 medley relay, winning the gold in 3 minutes 52.05 seconds. With Phelps swimming the butterfly leg, the men touched home in 3:29.35.
As Phelps wrapped up his career with 22 Olympic medals, the meet unveiled his apparent female heir. “It is unreal,” Franklin said, adding later, “I don’t think his footsteps will ever be filled.”
Both she and Phelps, who has spent his entire career at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, collected four gold medals here, winning two individual events and two relays; she added a bronze in the 4x200 individual medley relay, he got a silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay and 200 butterfly.
It was hard to tell who had more fun. Franklin, who won the 100 and 200 backstroke events while setting a world record in the 200, seized the stage with nightly displays of fearlessness and joy; she surely set the world record for enthusiastic adjectives and adverbs during news conferences. Every performance, it seemed, was unbelievably fun. She had absolutely wonderful teammates and, night after night, turned out to be the happiest girl in the world.
“Being here in this type of experience with the most incredible teammates you could ask for around me, it’s absolutely impossible to get grumpy,” she said Friday.
Phelps sounded like the happiest guy, only much more mellow and with fewer superlatives. After starting the meet with a fourth place in the 400 individual medley, he got on a medal roll.
“The first race took the pressure off,” Bowman said. “We were saying, ‘We might as well enjoy it. It doesn’t look like it’s going to go too well; we might as well have fun here.’ ”
Phelps had fun, and then it went well, too. Phelps helped the U.S. men crush the field in the 4x200 freestyle relay. After getting out-touched at the wall in the 200 butterfly, he beat Ryan Lochte, the 400 medley champion, in the 200 individual medley.
“He’s smiling back there,” Dana Vollmer, the 100 fly champion who swam the butterfly leg on the women’s relay, said before the men came out for their news conference. “He’s really here to enjoy the Games . . . He’s absolutely loving it.”