Is this really Michael Phelps’s last Olympics?

Why stop at four?
Why stop at four?
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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When the world’s best swimmers raced in the 200-meter individual medley last night (Aug. 11), one finished far ahead of the pack: Michael Phelps.

At 31, a practically geriatric age in the world of swimming, Phelps is already the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold medal in the Olympics. Yet his win by a wide margin (paywall) in a race that tests speed, form, and endurance showed that he remains the best in the world, and his time of 1:54.66 was among the better finishes in big international competitions in his career. It’s nearly inconceivable to imagine any swimmer competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the age of 35, except Michael Phelps.

Even Ryan Lochte, Phelps’s teammate and friend, seems to expect him to compete in 2020. On the Today show this morning, Lochte said he believes there will be another chapter in the long-running rivalry between him and Phelps. “You know what, I can definitely say that, because I guarantee he will be there,” Lochte said. “I think so. I really think so, so Michael I’ll see you in Tokyo.”

Lochte isn’t always serious, but he knows what a competitor Phelps is. Apparently Phelps’s mother, Debbie, liked the idea, too. She said later in the broadcast that she already had a race in mind for him.

We may not see another Phelps-Lochte showdown in the Olympics, and not just because Lochte appears to be slowing more than Phelps. Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, doesn’t imagine him returning. “I just don’t see it happening,” he said after Phelps’s victory last night. “He’s in such a good place personally. He doesn’t need it.”

And of course Phelps himself has said repeatedly that 2016 is to be his final Olympics, and reiterated that stance just yesterday.

But then he’s also been retired once before. What brought him out was apparently what he saw as the slowness of his competition. He said he returned to swimming, and to the 200m butterfly in particular, because the times of other swimmers competing were “really not that fast.” It was the comment that ignited his feud with South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, now captured in Phelps’s angry face as he watched Le Clos shadow box in front of him before their meeting in the 200m butterfly semifinals on Aug. 8. Phelps won that race.

Perhaps it’s possible that if Phelps feels his competition is similarly slow in a few years time, he’ll find himself up for a trip to Tokyo.

Not least of all, he’s an intense competitor, and it can be difficult psychologically for an athlete of his caliber to step away. Michael Jordan retired from basketball not once or twice but three times.

So is this Michael Phelps’s final Olympics? Nobody can be 100% certain, perhaps not even Phelps himself.