LONDON — When it all was officially over, when the 22nd medal had been won and there wasn’t an early-morning training session staring him in the face for the first time in his life, Michael Phelps broke down in tears.
He was in the warm-down pool at the time and all he was trying to do was say thanks to his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. With goggles covering his eyes, Phelps told Bowman how he had idolized Michael Jordan his entire life because Jordan was able to do things that no one else had ever done. Then he told his coach how he felt that what Jordan accomplished on the basketball court he was able to do in the pool.
22 medals. 18 gold. Eight world records. Zero regrets.
Then he said thank you. As the tears started to fall, Bowman barked that the sentimental moment wasn’t fair. While Phelps could hide his tears behind his goggles, Bowman’s streamed down his cheeks for everyone to see.
Phelps’ swimming career ended exactly the way it should have on Saturday night, with the lanky kid from Baltimore using the most famous butterfly stroke in history to turn a .22-second deficit into a .26-second lead that the Americans wouldn’t relinquish in the 4x100-meter medley relay. When it was over, FINA presented him with a trophy that had the title “Greatest Olympian of All Time” engraved on the front.
The claim is one that will be argued for decades. But no one can belittle the point that the sport of swimming will never be the same without its biggest star. In conjunction with the last night of Michael Phelps’ career, ESPN.com asked 22 different individuals — one for each of Phelps’ Olympic medals — to tell us what it is that they will miss most now that Michael Phelps’ swimming has come to an end.
Cathy Bennett, taught Michael swimming lessons at 5 years old, works with Phelps on his IM program to help kids learn how to swim
"There’s a lot I’ll miss. But I’m one of the lucky ones that I’ll get to see a lot of him for our work with his swim school. Meadowbrook [Swim School] is the greatest place in the world, but it’s not fancy. To see him drive up in his Porsche or his Mercedes or whatever sort of fancy car he is driving and come in with the rest of us was always special. He always had a, ‘Hi Miss Cathy’ or a hug if he had been away. I’ll miss those moments."
Bob Bowman, Phelps’ swimming coach since he was 11.
"I’ll miss the times at all these meets just hanging out. Watching him get ready. Working with him on stuff and seeing him improve. The day-to-day stuff. I’ll miss the interaction with him in the warm-down pool. Those times when it is just he and I. We just speak the same language without talking a lot."
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers, Olympic gold medalist in Beijing
"I’ll miss him streamlining and the dolphin kicks. It just looks humanly unnatural. For him to be able to do that, I mean, he looks like a dolphin as he’s doing it. That’s the most phenomenal thing visually to see him do."
Frank Busch, National Team Director, USA Swimming
"You look at someone like Michael and you go, ‘That’s a gift. That’s a very, very special gift.’ And anytime you see somebody like that, you just appreciate it. It’s just like looking at incredibly fine art. You just stare at it. It doesn’t matter if it was painted 100 years ago. It’s incredible. I’ll miss that gift. I’ll miss seeing that human body going through the water in a very special way."
Josh Charles, Baltimore native and actor who stars on the CBS drama “The Good Wife” and was in the film “Dead Poets Society”
"He’s a Baltimore boy like me, and to watch him compete and dominate at the highest level just gives you such a tremendous sense of pride in your city and your state. I just love how focused and competitive he is. I think that level of excellence is so rare in any profession. When you see someone doing something no one has ever done before, and probably something no one will ever do again, it puts a smile on your face when they are out representing Baltimore like that."
Janet Evans, five-time Olympic medalist in Seoul and Barcelona, three-time world-record holder
"As a swimmer, I will simply miss watching him race. It was always such a beautiful thing. He made it look so graceful, beautiful and simple, and there was nothing like watching him come from behind to beat the best in the world. It inspired me every single time."
Chris Finch, Great Britain head basketball coach and Pennsylvania native
"There’s just something special about watching the absolute best doing what they do. People outside sport often don’t understand the pressure of expectation and seeing someone like Phelps meet and exceed that damn near every time is phenomenally motivating. As an American, I will miss his dominance and the groundswell of interest in the sport and the patriotism he inspires. He’s a microcosm for our country."
Missy Franklin, five-time Olympic medalist in London
"Watching Michael swim is beautiful. Watching what he does and how he moves through the water, you can tell he’s meant to do that. To see that, be a part of it, and be on his team has been amazing. He’s a huge part of Team USA; he’s done so much for the sport of swimming and we’re going to miss him so much."
Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic gold medalist from Los Angeles, swimming commentator for NBC
"I’ll miss the magic that he has when in a race when you think there is no way he’s going to win and then he does it. And nothing epitomizes that more than the 100 butterfly in three straight Olympics. Each one you thought, ‘He might not do it, he might not do it, he might not do it’ and then he’s there at the end. I’ll miss his pure magic at the end of a race."
Jessica Hardy, two-time Olympic medalist in London
"I’ll miss his quiet confidence. It brings this level of professionalism to our team. And the awareness he brings to our sport … I’m going to miss all the excitement and the atmosphere and stuff every time he races. He’s been so relaxed and fun and grateful this time. He’s more normal this time, I’d say. I’m going to miss that."
Brendan Hansen, six-time Olympic medalist in Athens, Beijing and London, captain for the 2012 Olympic men’s team
"There’s two kinds of leaders on a team. Ones who are vocal and others who do it by action. Michael, since he was 15 years old, has always been a leader by action. And I think this team is going to miss that. No matter what the situation, no matter what this team had thrown at it, he always performed. And he always did an amazing job. And it was something that made the rest of the team stay calm and believe that they could do it."
Cullen Jones, four-time Olympic medalist in Beijing and London, one of Phelps’ closest friends
"Personally, I’ll miss a friend. I’m sure I’ll see him around and we’ll hang out, but to see him on deck every meet and be able to walk up to him and crack jokes before I’m about to race, those things I’m going to miss for sure. He’s one of those guys who is extremely positive. No matter what, he just walks up to me and is like, ‘You know I’m going to beat you in the 100, right?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, so it’s like that, is it?’ We go back and forth. I’m losing a friend in the sport. I’ll miss that."
Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ agent
"I’ll miss the gravity Michael’s presence seemed to provide to every race he swam. It was never just a one-off race; from the very beginning it was part of an ambitious 10-year plan. The significance of the journey was apparent at the start. It’s one thing to watch a legend perform, but it’s something truly special when you know you’re watching history being made every race over a 10-year career."
Ryan Lochte, 11-time Olympic medalist in Athens, Beijing and London, one of Phelps’ rivals and friends
"I’m going to miss racing him. He’s the toughest competitor I ever went up against."
James Magnussen, Australian swimmer, two-time Olympic medalist in London
"I’ll miss his determination. If I was to stand on the blocks and there was someone I wouldn’t want beside me it would have been Michael Phelps. He’s just such a competitive guy and very few people have stood next to him and said they have beaten him. I respect him for that."
Thiago Pereira, Brazilian silver medalist in the 400-meter individual medley relay, longtime Phelps competitor
"He has been doing so many things that people thought were impossible. Some really tough races — not 50s or 100s — it’s the 200 and 400 medley. He was the first guy who showed the world that it’s possible to do things that people thought were impossible. I’ll miss the challenge. I’ll miss having somebody like that racing against me."
Summer Sanders, four-time Olympic medalist, two-time gold medalist in Barcelona
"I’ll miss knowing that that every time he dove in the water something great had the potential of happening. Maybe it was a world record, maybe it was an exciting race, but there was always something great right around the corner with him. His career was so perfect in so many ways. I’m just really going to miss it and I’m honored to have even been here to witness it."
Allison Schmitt, six-time Olympic medalist in Beijing and London, trained with Phelps at the North Baltimore Athletic Club
"Not only will I miss the fun we had when he was around and how he would joke around a lot at practice, but when I was hurting I always knew he had gone through this pain many times before me. When he encouraged me I knew he had done it before me, so I would tell myself, ‘I can do this.’ He’s such a dedicated athlete. It’s so inspiring."
Hope Solo, Olympic gold medalist from Beijing, goalkeeper for U.S. women’s national soccer team
"What I will miss most about Michael Phelps is being able to turn on that television set and see the sheer focus, the sheer determination and the athleticism. He’s an absolutely fierce warrior. That’s what he brings to the Games, and I think everybody wishes they could have that kind of athleticism inside of them"
Kerri Walsh Jennings, two-time Olympic beach volleyball champion in Athens and Beijing
"His greatness. He just seems like such a kid, but he’s like Superman at the same time. I wanted him to kick butt so much at these Olympics and for him to lose that first race and come back, it shows how amazing he truly is. That’s so much pressure and the heart and passion you have to put into that. I fed off that a lot. I will miss getting to feed off my hopes and dreams for him. I am so proud of him. He gives me chills. He is one in a million. I’ll miss the inspiration he provides."
Abby Wambach, Olympic gold medalist from Athens, second-leading scorer in U.S. women’s soccer history
"What I will miss the most is the feel-good of knowing he’s in a race for the Americans, knowing he is going to do well for us and keep ticking the medal count up in our favor. I wish him all the best of luck and the truth is, you never know what’s going to happen in four years. He says he’s retiring now, but he could be back. You watch."
Bubba Watson, PGA Tour golfer, 2012 Masters champion and friend of Phelps
"I think everybody is going to miss him. For sports fans, we’ll miss that competitive fire that he has, that desire he has to perform. And [to do it] four years apart. We’ll all miss that. I watch other athletes, see how they do, see how they compare, see how they do under pressure. We get to watch the greatest golfer, Tiger. But then watching these other athletes, especially at the Olympics, how emotional it is, fighting for your country. You learn from that. And our friendship hopefully grows from that; we can play some golf together and I can learn from him even if he is not competing anymore."
By Wayne Drehs
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