“This is sort of my first day,” Phelps said. “I don’t know what to do.”
At this, the end of his fourth and final Olympics, Phelps has wrung every last superlative from the washcloth. What more, after 22 medals, 18 of them gold, is there to ask? What more can he say?
Yet when he hosted a news conference Sunday, an event staged by Visa at an ornate convention center steps from Westminster Abbey, he faced a wall of 30 cameras behind a packed room of journalists. He took questions from Brazil and Colombia, from Australia and Nigeria, from China and Turkey. But in a way, the most compelling items Phelps had to offer were the questions he spat back.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” he said.
This is a man who has thought of little other than swimming for 20 years — save for a few touch-and-go-moments in the past four years, when his coach wondered if he would focus enough to end up in London. Yet now, after winning more Olympic medals than any athlete in history, he says he is done with his sport. He said Sunday he intended to take a vacation, to travel the world.
“Who knows where I go?” he said.
These seem to be genuine questions from an athlete, a person, who is clearly undergoing a metamorphosis at age 27. As he overcame an ominous start to his meet here, his first Olympic race without a medal since his first Olympics in 2000, teammates frequently spoke of a more open, more giving compatriot. In 2008 — when he won a record eight gold medals, changed his sport and began shaping his own legacy — he seemed programmed, mechanical. The task was so daunting, there was perhaps no other way to undertake it. Here, though, he was human, first in defeat, and then in winning six more medals, the final four gold.
“You’re going to make me tear up,” said five-time London medalist Allison Schmitt, who trained with Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Center for the year leading up to these Games, when she was asked earlier in the week about Phelps. Saturday morning, Phelps and Schmitt held hands as they plunged into the pool for the final practice of Phelps’s career.
“I’m speechless,” Schmitt said. “Being able to see him after the race, I feel like I want to jump him and give him a hug every time. He makes me tear up every time I see him. I couldn’t be happier to be his teammate and his friend.”
Those who are with him the most saw the changes. Peter Carlisle of Octagon became Phelps’s agent when he was just 17. More than anyone, he knows that Phelps’s responses to public queries over the past decade could be rote, mundane. The Phelps who spent this past week in London felt different.