BARCELONA, Spain — Michael Phelps will be dropping by this dazzling city on the Mediterranean during the world swimming championships.
He’ll be wined and dined and feted. He’ll make appearances on behalf of sponsors that still find his name is worth big bucks, even in retirement. He’ll watch the competition from the stands, cheering on former rivals he used to beat with regularity, as well as up-and-comers aiming to be the next Baltimore Bullet.
He won’t swim a stroke.
Yet he’s still the biggest name here.
Every press conference includes at least a few questions about Phelps: Is he coming back? What did he mean to the sport? Can anyone ever replace him?
With apologies to a very worthy list of would-be successors, led by 18-year-old American Missy Franklin, the answer to that last question is a resounding no.
“Michael has his own legacy,” Franklin acknowledged Friday. “He created a path in swimming that was such a bright light for all of us. It’s going to shine for years and years to come. No one is filling his legacy. It speaks for itself. I hope to have my own legacy in the sport.”
For the past couple of months, there’s been rampant speculation that Phelps is plotting a comeback, that he’s easing back into workouts with an eye toward trading all those glamorous walks down the red carpet for the inglorious grind of staring at the black line on the bottom of a pool.
He was only 27 when he walked away last summer after the London Olympics, having piled up a haul of medals that will be hard for anyone to eclipse. Eighteen golds. Twenty-two medals in all.
Phelps had set a plan in motion years ago: Break Mark Spitz’s record for most gold medals at one Olympics. Check. Win more Olympic medals than anyone. Check. Walk away from the grueling sport before he turned 30. Check.
“You can never say never, but I don’t think so,” said Jacco Verhaeren, director of the Dutch national team, when he got the inevitable question about Phelps coming out of retirement. “He’s a top athlete and they know when it’s enough. And I think it’s enough for him. I think he made it so very clear.
“Why would he?”
That was essentially the same line I got from Phelps when I talked with him by phone back in December. It was a few days before Christmas, and word had just come down that he beat LeBron James in balloting for The Associated Press male athlete of the year.
Phelps was at a picturesque golf course in Mexico then, getting ready to go out late in the afternoon to play a few more holes with renowned golf coach Hank Haney for a television show.
Of course, I asked Phelps if he was ready to announce his comeback.
He chuckled and responded, very convincingly, that it made no sense to give up a good life he had so richly earned to do nothing more than add to his legacy — and maybe tarnish it.
“I’m sure I could come back in another four years. But why?” Phelps said. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do. There’s no point for me to come back.”
Which does make a lot of sense.
Phelps’ records are already somewhere out in the stratosphere, far out of reach for anyone in the foreseeable future. Certainly, there’s a nobleness to going out on top because so few athletes actually do it. Jim Brown comes to mind. So does Barry Sanders. But, mostly, our superstars will scratch and claw to hang on for one year too long, often looking downright pathetic compared to what they were in their prime.
For now, our last image of Phelps, the swimmer, was a triumphant walk around the pool deck in London, shortly after he had earned his fourth gold medal of those games and picked up a special award from FINA, the world governing body, for his lifelong body of work.
Not a bad way to go out.
“I wanted to leave that way,” Phelps told me back in December. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do in this sport. I don’t know a lot of people who can say that. I know you’ve seen major athletes make comebacks. But I’m on top of the world. This really is a dream come true for me. It’s still like I have to wake up and say, `This is reality. This is really what happened to me in my life.’ It’s the coolest thing you can say.”
Very shortly, we’ll find out for sure if he still feels that way.
Maybe there are only so many golf outings and fancy parties a man can take, especially when he spent most of his still-young life in the regimented world of swimming. The meets are only the small part we get to see. The bulk of the work is done in the lonely surroundings of the practice pool, just Phelps and his coach and a few training partners, grinding out more yards in a day than most of us will swim in a lifetime, day after day after day.
If Phelps does decide to come back, he’ll likely want to get started in the fall.
That would give him the time needed to get his body back in peak racing condition. He could rejoin the Grand Prix circuit the following year, then look ahead to the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, and the ultimate prize, the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Lochte, for one, hopes that Phelps returns.
“I like racing against him. It’s fun,” Lochte said Friday. “He’s made this sport bigger than what it was. He’s the one who did that.”
A lot of people on the pool deck share that assessment. They know a Phelps comeback might cut into their gold medal chances in Rio, but everyone knows it would raise the sport’s profile more than any of them can do collectively.
“Do I miss him?” Lochte asked, repeating a familiar question around Barcelona.
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