LONDON — One by one his rivals formed a handshake line behind the blocks at the London Aquatics Centre and paid homage to Michael Phelps. In what he said was his racing finale Saturday, as a member of the U.S. men's 400-meter medley relay team, Phelps collected his 22nd medal and 18th gold.
Before Phelps retired, he had one last trophy to collect: a statuette from swimming's governing body that recognized his place in Olympic history and resembled a crinkled piece of aluminum foil from a footlong 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."
Some architects of history work from a blueprint, while others, like Phelps, do not 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 burning desire to make swimming cool for children all over the world.
"I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level," Phelps said.
Saturday, Phelps' butterfly followed Matt Grevers' backstroke and Brendan Hansen's breaststroke in the medley relay, and 50.73 seconds later, his career over, he gave the anchor, freestyler Nathan Adrian, a lead that Adrian turned into a runaway victory over Japan and Australia. The Americans won in 3 minutes, 29.35 seconds, just off their 2008 Olympic record .
"I was able to really put the final cherry on top (Saturday), put all the whipped cream I wanted and sprinkles. I was able to top off the sundae," Phelps, 27, said.
Phelps wasn't the only star of the night. Missy Franklin capped off an impressive Olympic debut by helping the United States take gold in the women's 400 medley relay with a world-record time, 3:52.05, beating the mark of 3:52.19 set by China at the 2009 world championships.
It was the fourth gold for Franklin, 17, tying Amy Van Dyken in 1996 for the most by a U.S. female swimmer at a Games. Franklin's other medal was bronze, bringing her overall total to five in seven events, the same number of events Phelps swam.
Another member of that relay was Allison Schmitt, who trained with Phelps over the past year in Baltimore and became friends with him. She finished with three golds, a silver and a bronze.
China's Sun Yang won the 1,500 freestyle in a world-record 14:31.02. That beat his mark from last year's world championships by 3.12 seconds. Sun added that to his gold in the 400 free.
The Netherlands' Ranomi Kromowidjojo won the women's 50 free to complete a sweep of the sprints in an Olympic-record 24.05 seconds. But this night was all about a farewell for Phelps.
Later, as he got up to leave one news conference and go to another, the other three U.S. swimmers were asked if they thought he would stay retired.
Phelps wouldn't even let them answer, saying, "Yes! Yes!"