He left it all in the pool, every inch of his lean and bruised body, every dazzling and dark moment of his career, all swirling behind him in the roiling waters of the Olympic Aquatics Center.
He bent down over the deck in exhaustion. He stayed down, staring at the blue floor, basking, breathing, until he finally found the strength to straighten, thrust up his arms and wave his hands in a universal gesture of goodbye.
Thousands of fans wearing a dizzying diversity of colors and flapping many-hued flags stood for the guy wearing the red, white and blue.
And soon thereafter, in accents and tongues from all over the globe, they chanted his name.
“Mich-ael Phelps! Mich-ael Phelps!”
On a thick-throated Saturday night in Rio, the air was filled with the sort of singular appreciation never heard from an entire Olympics crowd.
For one moment, it felt as if the entire sporting world was putting aside its differences to say farewell to the greatest.
Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever, now and forever, and the final race of his five Olympics was filled with the richness of what exactly that means.
Michael Phelps’ final race ends in gold in Rio de Janeiro
It means a record 23 gold medals, and a record 28 overall, after his butterfly leg pushed the U.S. men’s team to a victory in the 400-meter medley relay.
It means six medals, five of them gold, in these Games at age 31. Six medals four years after he retired the first time. Six medals that make him the most decorated athlete at four consecutive Olympics. Think about that.
“It’s just insane, it’s mind-blowing,” Phelps said this week, and both phrases are insane understatements.
He is Peyton Manning, but only if Manning had been the MVP of that last Super Bowl.
He is Kobe Bryant, but only if Bryant had scored those final 60 points in an NBA Finals Game 7.
He is Barry Bonds, but clean. He is Tiger Woods, with redemption.
On Saturday, swimming the third leg of a relay he once again rescued, the retiring-for-sure star was all of those things, even when standing on the podium for the final time.
As the national anthem played, he fought back tears while swaying to a song he has heard so many times. He and his three teammates — Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy and Cody Miller — then initially held up a sign that carried no boasting words or record numbers. “Thank you Rio,” it read simply.
“This is a cherry on top of the cake that I wanted,” Phelps said afterward, looking drained but happy.
“He is the greatest of all time, he’s the GOAT, and he’s still so good,” proclaimed teammate Anthony Ervin.