LONDON -- One by one his rivals formed a handshake line behind the blocks at the London Aquatics Centre and paid homage to Michael Phelps, the lord of the Olympic rings. In his racing finale Saturday night, as a member of the U.S. men's 4x100-meter medley relay, Phelps collected his 22nd medal, and 18th gold.
Before Phelps retired, he had one last trophy to collect: a statuette that recognized his place in Olympic history and resembled a crinkled piece of aluminum foil from a foot-long sandwich.
"It's kind of weird looking at this and seeing 'Greatest Olympian of All Time,' " Phelps said, adding: "I finished my career the way I wanted to. I think that's pretty cool."
It sounds ludicrous now, but when Phelps began his journey toward becoming the Tiger Woods of swimming, he had no clue what Mark Spitz had done. Unlike Woods -- who kept a tally, like a to-do list, of the feats of his golfing idol Jack Nicklaus -- Phelps was looking to the future when he put together the most ambitious Olympic swimming program in history.
Before he became the first swimmer to race in eight Olympic events at the 2004 Games, Phelps was fuzzy on the details of Spitz's career. It was left to his coach, Bob Bowman, to fill him in on Spitz's seven-gold-medal performance at the 1972 Olympics. Similarly, Phelps said he did not know until recently about the gymnast Larisa Latynina, who reigned for nearly five decades as the most-decorated Olympian, with 18
Some architects of history work from a blueprint, and others, like Phelps, don't want to acknowledge any ceiling. Phelps transformed swimming, inspiring a generation at home and abroad, by building an audacious program out of grit, guts and a geek's burning desire to make swimming cool for kids all over the world.
"I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level," Phelps said.
On Saturday, Phelps followed Matt Grevers and Brendan Hansen into the water, and 50.73 seconds later, his career over, he gave the anchor, Nathan Adrian, a comfortable lead that he turned into a runaway victory over Japan and Australia.
The drama was in the details: the two cameras set up behind and on either side of Phelps as he stepped to the blocks for his butterfly leg; the hugs with his teammates after the race; the tear-stained face of his mother who stood with all the other fans applauding; and this conversation in the warm-up pool before the race with Bowman, the Sherpa who took him to the sporting summit: "My tears are hidden behind goggles," Phelps told him. "Yours are streaming down your face."
Phelps' 22 medals are a mind-boggling total. If he were a country, he'd rank in the top 60 among countries in the history of the modern Olympics. His 18 golds would put him No. 36, ahead of Argentina.
The monarchy of Michael has loyal subjects far and wide, from Missy Franklin in Denver to Chad Le Clos in Durban, South Africa.
Franklin, 17, who competed in seven events here, the most ever by a female Olympic swimmer, owes her ambition to Phelps, who made such a workload seem not only feasible but fun.
"What he's done is incredible," Franklin said, "and he's kind of made people rethink the impossible -- rethink what they can do and how they can push themselves."
She added: "I don't think his shoes will ever be filled. I think his footsteps are huge. I just hopefully can make little paths next to his."
According to Bowman, Phelps got choked up when he heard he was Le Clos' hero and role model. "It means Michael's done what he wanted to do: affect the sport of swimming," he said.
During the meet, Bowman said, a coach from another country approached him and said his swimmers had more of a following thanks to Phelps, making the sport more attractive to better athletes.
Phelps, 27, has no peers in the annals of swimming, but is he the greatest Olympian of all time? Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic champion in track and the head of the London Organizing Committee, said no. His argument was that swimming, unlike other sports, offers a smorgasbord of individual events and allows its athletes the opportunity to team up on relays, too. True, but here's something to consider: to earn his 22 medals, Phelps had to race 46 times, counting preliminaries and semifinals, over three Olympics.
"It's crazy to think he's retiring," Le Clos said, "because I've always looked up to him. It's going to be hard to go to a meet and he's not there."
Phelps will be gone, but not forgotten. He inspired a generation, and more than all his medals, it's his greatest legacy.