Michael Phelps made one last climb to the top of the Olympic podium Saturday, made one last bow to have a gold medal ribbon wrapped around his neck and made one long, last glorious goodbye to the adoring fans at the London pool where he became the greatest Olympian of all time.
The Americans' 4x100 medley team won the gold medal Saturday with Phelps, competing in the final event of his career, swimming his typically dominant butterfly leg.
That gold medal was Phelps' 18th in the three Olympic Games beginning in 2004, and boosted his medal total to 22. Both are records for any Olympic sport and athlete.
Phelps has become the world's most well-known and popular Olympic athlete, and its wealthiest. Forbes magazine estimates he is set to earn $100 million from his swimming career, with mega-sponsorships from companies such as Hilton, Subway, Omega and, of course, swimwear company Speedo.
Since he won an Olympic-record eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Forbes has estimated Phelps has earned $5 million to $7 million a year. That lithe 6-foot-4 body, propelled by his size 14 feet (more flippers than flesh), is now going into retirement after driving the sport to record television ratings.
"I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level," Phelps said after winning the 100 butterfly gold medal on Friday.
"What he's done is incredible, and it's helped people rethink the impossible, and rethink what they can do and how they can push themselves," said Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old American who won the 200 backstroke gold medal on Friday. "He goes through so much every single day. To see how he handles everything with such calmness, I think that's what really opened my eyes a little bit. . . . I don't think his shoes will ever be filled. They're so huge. Hopefully I can make little paths."
After his final Olympic victory Saturday, Phelps hugged his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who whispered three words that said it all, "I love you."
Their partnership was formed 16 years ago, when Bowman took a gangly, hyperactive kid with an extraordinary gift and helped turn him into a swimmer the likes of which the world had never seen. It was Bowman who drove Phelps to eight golds at Beijing, a feat that was in jeopardy after Phelps broke a bone in his right wrist in November 2007. "Bob and I have somehow managed to do every single thing," Phelps said last night. "If you can say that about your career, there's no need to move forward. Time for other things."
Olympic athletes with the most career gold medals:
9 Carl Lewis, USA Track & Field (1984-96)
9 Larisa Latynina, USSR Gymnastics (1956-64)