By Chase McFadden//Content Contributor | Friday, December 9, 2016
There is a wonderful bit of irony in the fact that the greatest individual Olympian of all time capped his career by contributing to a relay gold.
In a sport that is a unique combination of solo successes and team achievement, Michael Phelps managed both in a manner that will never be matched. The greatest swimmer in history was a member of the greatest swim teams in history; neither the individual nor the whole would have enjoyed such sustained excellence without the other.
So it seemed only fitting that his last splash would be as a member of the 4 x100 meter medley relay, his one leg no more or less important than the other three, four swims combined earning a final gold for the Olympic legend and providing an exclamation point to Team USA’s dominant performance in Rio.
The 31-year-old added three medals in individual swims to his Olympic total, but the legacy of his Rio Games will be reflected in the three he won as part of relays.
"It was crazy. I was standing on the blocks while Caeleb was coming in, and I honestly thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest,” Phelps said of the relay swim. “Having that amount of excitement, the cheering in the stands during that race, I don't know if I have ever heard anything like it."
His personal-best relay split in the event helped set the tone for the American squad. Teammate and first-time Olympian Maya DiRado took notice of the swim and couldn’t help but be energized by the effort of a swimmer she and so many of her teammates looked up to.
“It's interesting because we know that he's the greatest of all time and he's already proved that 100 times over,” DiRado said of Phelps, “but he was still able to top himself and surprise us and just kind of reinforce his legendary status. The relay was incredible just to throw down that split. He always delivers on relays, so I think that's just part of his greatness.”
The gold was Phelps’s 23rd Olympic medal, but it was the first for relay partner Ryan Held, who was overcome by emotion on the awards podium. His veteran teammate embraced him and shared words of wisdom that resonated with Held.
“Michael said, ‘Just take it in. This is your one guaranteed moment; you'll never have the opportunity for sure ever again. Just take it in: the crowd, the medal, the weight, the flag, the anthem." It's something truly special.”
Phelps acknowledged that Held’s outpouring of emotion affected him, as well. “The younger guys started crying, and then I started crying. I told them it is OK to sing. It is OK to cry. It is good to see emotion as one of the old dudes.
“I was definitely a lot more emotional than I was in 2012,” the Baltimore native said of his Rio reactions compared to those in London. “I think that’s a good thing. Being able to look back at my career, I can say we’ve been able to accomplish everything we wanted. It was a challenge getting back to this point, but this is the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted, and I couldn’t be happier with how things ended.”
This American squad was comprised of a number of fresh new faces -- 31 of the 47 athletes were first-time Olympians. Phelps – “one of the old dudes” – utilized his wealth of experience to serve as a mentor and leader for the team, a role that he embraced and relished in his final Olympic Games.
As such, relay gold seemed the perfect conclusion to Phelps’s storied career.
USA Swimming is re-celebrating the top moments from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Check back on USASwimming.org every few days for new profile on the the swimmers who made those moments happen. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @USASwimming for more on our success in Rio.