After Ending Career with a Gold, Is Phelps the Greatest Olympian of All Time?

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps closed out his career with an unprecedented 18th gold medal

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Jorge Silva / Reuters

Michael Phelps of the U.S. throws his winner's flower bouquet to his mother Debbie, after receiving his gold medal for winning the men's 4x100m medley relay final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on Aug. 4, 2012.

“That’s not fair,” Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman told him as the greatest Olympian of all time came out of the warmup pool for the last time in his competitive career.

“What’s not fair?” asked Phelps.

“You were in the pool.”

Phelps knew exactly what he meant. “Yeah, my tears were happening behind my goggles, and yours are streaming down your face,” he told his coach.

Phelps and Bowman put an emotional end to a historic career in the Aquatics Center in Olympic Park on Saturday, one that tops off at 22 career medals and 18 golds.

And how would he sum up his remarkable run? “I did it,” he says.

MORE: U.S’s Golden Day in the Pool: Phelps Wins 17th Gold

It’ll have to do for now, until the emotions and the impact of his achievement has time to settle in. Phelps has been adamant about the fact that he doesn’t want to swim when he is 30, and by the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero in 2016, he’ll be 31. Driven by his own goals, which he doesn’t like to make public, in Beijing Phelps became the first Olympic athlete to earn eight gold medals in a single Games. This time, he wanted to make history again by collecting more Olympic hardware than any athlete ever.

“I’ve been able to do everything I wanted,” he says. “Through the ups and downs, through my career, I’ve still been able to do everything I wanted to accomplish. I’ve been able to do things nobody else has ever done, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

To be the first is a lofty goal, and at Phelps’ level, it’s the only one that makes sense. In the last race of his career, with his mother, Debbie, two sisters Hilary and Whitney and his niece Taylor in the stands, Phelps did what he does best: he helped the U.S. men win their seventh consecutive gold in the 4x100m medley relay, traditionally the last swimming event of the Games. With the US trailing by 0.55 seconds to Japan after the breast stroke leg, Phelps dove in for the last 100m of his competitive career with an impressive butterfly leg that pulled the Americans back on top with a 0.47 lead that they never gave up.

MORE: Swimming Stunner: Phelps Falls to Lochte, Fails to Medal

Brendan Hansen, a three-time Olympian who swam the breast stroke leg of the same relay in 2004 and 2008, was matched up against Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, who edged him out of both 100m and 200m breast stroke gold medals at the past two Olympic Games. “It was fun to swim next to him, and I’m glad the Japanese were right next to us,” says Hansen of their adjacent lane assignments. “It’s been a fun ride, and I hope to take a picture with him to put a cap on the rivalry we’ve had, and how much fun we had.”

Going out on top was also important to Phelps, who finished this Games with a fourth place finish in the 400m individual medley, but four golds and two silver medals to top the medal count for any swimmer in London. Presented with a special trophy from the international swimming federation, FINA, for his record-breaking achievement, he says “It’s tough to put into words right now. I finished my career how I wanted to, and I always said that I don’t care what anybody else says—if I can say that about my career, that’s all that matters.”

Swimmers are already starting to miss him and what he brings to the pool, but it’s not hard to see the legacy he leaves behind for both the younger athletes from the U.S. as well as around the world. When asked about whether his gold in the 1500m freestyle will make him the greatest athlete in China, Yang Sun said “I’m not yet Michael Phelps. If you talk about the greatest athlete, I think it’s Michael Phelps.”

And it’s not just the male swimmers who will be missing his presence. In a stunning world record swim, the women’s 4x100m medley relay of Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt, who trains with Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland, won the US’s first gold in the event since the 2000 Games in Sydney. Franklin, 17, who has been called the female Phelps for her unprecedented seven-event swim program in London (the first for a female swimmer), credits Phelps with inspiring her through Olympic Trials and at the Games. “I don’t think [his] shoes will ever be filled; his footsteps are huge. But hopefully I can make little paths right next to his,” she says.

The US men’s team finished the Games one medal short (16) of its haul in Beijing in 2008 (Phelps, after all, missed a medal in the 400m individual medley), while the women matched its 2008 performance with 14 medals, but with four of the eight world records set by both male and female swimmers in London. “As the days have gotten longer, we’ve gotten better each session,” says Vollmer, who set a world record in the 100m butterfly on the second night of the Games. “It’s incredible to see the young ones really step up, and not care that it’s the Olympic Games, and how many people are watching them, and perform for our country. I’m in awe of what USA Swimming can offer for many, many years to come.” And that’s the kind of legacy that only the greatest Olympian of all time can leave.