2012 Summer Olympics: Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre - can an elite athlete ever truly walk away?
"I'm done. I don't know if people really believe me, but I am actually finished. I'm retiring," the Olympic swimming legend tells CNN in a recent interview.
"I'm done," he repeats.
Phelps's loyal legion of fans, however, can cling to a long list of fickle fellow legends for hope. Sugar Ray Leonard announced his retirement in '82, then again in '84, then returned to beat Marvin Hagler in '87 and finally threw his last punch in 1997 - a full fifteen years after his "retirement." Perhaps the closest comparison to Phelps would be Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, who quit basketball for baseball in '92, returned in '94 and then retired again in '99. From Lance Armstrong to Roger Clemens to the king of retirement reticence himself, Brett Favre, each of these athletes has found it difficult to truly walk away.
Just like them, Phelps now needs to shelve that elite drive for victory and focus his energy on a far more sedate "civilian" life. Making matter even more difficult, he is also younger than every one of those men listed above. So, can Phelps do it?
"I've always said I don't want to swim past 30 and I know if I go one more, I'll be over 30," says the man with 22 medals, 18 of them gold. "I don't want to ever be that person where people are like, 'God, he's this old and he's still doing it or he's been around for this long.' So once I'm able to accomplish the goals that I have, if I can look back at my career and say I've been successful, that's all that matters to me."
Earlier this year, Phelps told Sports Illustrated he's not concerned about those who say that it's wrong to turn your back on a sport when you're still in your prime.
"It's all personal preference," he insists. "This is my 20th year in the sport. I've been able to do a lot of things that I've wanted to do and be a part of a lot of things. For me, I'm not going to be out of the sport; I'm just going to be out of it competitively. I'm going to be out of the pool and still continue to try to grow the sport as much as I can and take it to a new level -- that's always going to be a goal until it reaches its high point. ... I think there's a lot that the sport can do for people all over the world, and I'm going to do all I can to make it as big as it can go."
It sure does sound like Phelps has his mind made up, but the truth is, only time will tell whether any Favre-like changes of mind could occur. In an interview with the Associated Press, however, Phelps said his only immediate plans for swimming involve far away lakes and beaches.
"The biggest thing I really want to do is travel and see a bunch of the world," Phelps says of his new life as a retiree. "I'm just going to take it one step at a time, one day at a time. If I want to do something, I'm just going to do it."