RIO DE JANEIRO — In winning his 23rd gold medal Saturday night, Michael Phelps put an exclamation point on his historic Olympic swim career.
Now he will return home to Arizona, where he will spend time with fiancee Nicole Johnson and 3-month-old baby Boomer and join his coach Bob Bowman on the deck of the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center at Arizona State University as a volunteer assistant coach.
“He’s a father figure to me,” Phelps said of Bowman, his coach since age 11 who he followed to Arizona when Bowman was named ASU’s swim and dive coach last year. “He’s helped me through some of the worst times in my life and he’s been there every step of the way and I’m forever thankful.”
Phelps said Sunday that the 2016 Olympics helped him achieve “closure.” He reaffirmed his decision to retire in his final Olympic press conference Sunday with one word.
Now, he will transition from a life spent in the pool to the world alongside it.
“It’s exciting to see that there are kids out there who want to represent our country, who want to swim at this level, and who want to do well,” he said. “Hopefully for me I can find someone who has the passion and the desire and the drive that I had as a swimmer and be able to kind of really go after their goals.”
Phelps is concerned about one aspect of coaching – patience. The athlete with the most medals in Olympic history had a natural ability to grasp concepts quickly as a swimmer. He said it “might be a struggle” to teach others when they don’t immediately understand and improve.
However, he’s confident he can make a difference.
“Anything that I can do to help somebody accomplish their goals and their dreams, it would mean the world,” he said. “If there’s a kid that’s hungry enough and will work hard enough, it’ll be enjoyable for me.”
Phelps added another half-dozen medals to his collection in the 2016 Games, running his total to 28 — 23 of which are gold. In Rio, he won three relays, the 200-meter individual medley, the 200-meter butterfly and received silver in the 100-meter butterfly. He said that the 200-meter butterfly he swam here might be the greatest race of his career; in 2012 in London, he lost that same event to Chad le Clos but got vengeance in Rio, defeating the South African by 0.7 seconds.
“I was happy with how my career ended,” he said. “And I can’t say that about London … this was the way I wanted to hang up my suit four years ago.”
Phelps plans to extend his teaching beyond Tempe. He hopes to to spread swimming onto a more international stage, for reasons of both competition and safety.
“I want to give people all over the world the opportunity to swim,” he said. “Not only is it, for me, it’s been a huge part of my life, but it can also be a lifesaver.”
More than anything, Phelps can’t wait to spend more time with his family. He said he has barely seen Boomer over the last few weeks.
“That’s something that I’m really, really looking forward to, being able to watch him grow up,” Phelps said. “Being able to play catch with him in the backyard, or take him to a sporting event, or if he’s into music … I want to be there every step of the way, I don’t want to miss a thing.”