Michael Phelps is used to being in a league of his own. So it was strange to see him, after what he insists was his final individual race as an Olympian, crowding onto a medal stand with two other swimmers.
And it wasn’t even the top step.
In a changing of the guard that left him totally at peace, Phelps was beaten Friday by a 21-year-old who grew up idolizing the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. Joseph Schooling of Singapore built a big lead in the 100-meter butterfly and easily held off one of Phelps’ patented comebacks, leaving him at 22 gold medals with one race, a relay, left to go.
And that will be his final event, Phelps insisted.
No more comebacks.
“I’m not going four more years and I’m standing by that,” he said. “I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever put my mind to in the sport and after 24 years in the sport, I’m happy with how things finished.”
While Phelps wasn’t all that persuasive when he first retired after the 2012 London Games — and, indeed, he began eyeing a return to swimming about a year later — the big hug for Schooling and the huge smile when it was done told a different story this time reported CBS.
He’s a father now, to 3-month-old Boomer. He’ll soon be marrying his fiancee, Nicole Johnson.
He’s ready to move on, and this time he really seems to mean it.
“I’m happy,” Phelps said. “I’m ready to spend some time with Boomer and Nicole and watch the little dude grow.”
This being Phelps, he had to do something out of the ordinary, even in defeat.
He was part of the first three-way tie for silver in Olympic swimming history, joined on the next-highest step by longtime foes Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. They all touched in 51.14 seconds, which was actually faster than Phelps’ gold medal-winning time in 2012.
They clasped hands and stepped up together.
Then they all looked up to Schooling, receiving the gold for his blistering time of 50.39.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Schooling said. “I don’t know what to believe, like, whether I actually did it or I’m still preparing for my race.”
What made it even more special: Schooling still has a picture that he took with Phelps when the U.S. team trained in Singapore before the 2008 Olympics, the games where Phelps won a record eight gold medals in the pinnacle of his career.
“That’s pretty crazy, what happens in eight years,” said Schooling, who attends the University of Texas. “I’m just honored and privileged to have the chance to race alongside him.”
With four gold medals at these games and 22 for his career, Phelps has an opportunity to pick up one more before he leaves Rio. He’ll need some help from his teammates to do it — he leads off with the butterfly leg of the 400 medley relay on the final night of swimming Saturday.