Monday, September 24th, 2018 pm30 5:49pm

Purdy: Michael Phelps goes out on top

RIO DE JANEIRO — No one will demand a refund.

In Michael Phelps’ possible farewell race as a USA swimmer, the USA did not get cheated. The USA has never been cheated with Phelps in the water.

Saturday night, the USA was very much not cheated for the 23rd time in terms of winning a gold medal with Phelps representing his country. And if this was indeed the final time he swims competitively, the whole world saw in one remarkable relay leg what Phelps has brought to his sport since his first Olympics in 2000.

“It was awesome to be in that race with him,” said Ryan Murphy, the Cal swimmer who combined with Phelps and two other Americans to win the 4×100 medley gold. “If this was the end for him, that was a great way to go out.”

Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics

Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Afterward, Phelps spoke as if it was indeed goodbye.

“Getting off the bus walking into the pool tonight, I almost felt myself starting to cry,” Phelps said. “Last warmup, last time putting on a suit, last time walking out in front of thousands of people representing my country. It’s insane. … This is how I wanted to finish my career, the way I wanted to do it.”

Frankly, it was the way America needed him to do it. Phelps swam the relay’s third leg. The butterfly leg. Of course. The medley relay combines four strokes, each man doing a different one. But the butterfly is Phelps’ signature stroke. And when he plunged into the water, his USA team was trailing Britain by 0.61 seconds.


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Then Phelps began moving those muscular arms of his, the arms of conquering churn. He was matched up against British butterfly man James Guy, who held onto the lead for the first 50 meters. And then … the noise inside the Aquatics Stadium told you what was happening. Phelps began closing ground. Drew even. Churned and conquered. After his 100 meters, he touched the wall with a 0.41-second lead over Guy, meaning Phelps had picked up more than a full second for his team.

After that, there was no way freestyler Nathan Adrian of Cal was going to allow the USA to lose. Adrian pulled away and brought home the relay victory by 1.29 seconds in an Olympic record time of 3:27.95. Phelps raised his arms, then grabbed his teammates in a hug. Only later did Murphy realize that he had set an individual world record on his opening 100-meter backstroke leg, so pumped up had he been over the whole thing.

“I’d be lying if I said being a part of that relay didn’t give me a boost that carried me to that record,” Murphy said.

Phelps just looked drained. He was congratulated by his mother and girlfriend, who held their infant son, Boomer. And watching it all, you wondered what really was going through Phelps’ mind.

What was this all about? You can’t say that these Games proved he is the ultimate master of all he surveys or is the greatest USA Olympian ever. That’s because Phelps had already proved that four years ago in London. But just for housekeeping purposes, Phelps completed his fifth Olympic Games with those 23 total gold medals and 28 medals overall. He probably keeps them all at home in a bowl to give out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

This Olympic experience plainly meant a lot to him. The five gold medals and a silver in Rio served a purpose to him for some reason.

“It just feels good to know that the hard work did pay off,” Phelps said. “I was able to fight through some of the times that I went through the last two years and get back to where I actually wanted to be. This was the actual cherry on top of the cake. Looking forward to starting a new chapter.”

Yet count me among those who think that Saturday might not be the actual finish line. Phelps has “quit” once before, four years ago after the London Games. He is only 31 years old in a sport where a 35-year-old swimmer named Anthony Ervin won a gold medal here Friday night.

Murphy believes Phelps is officially done.

“I would just say that if I was still on top of the world like him, it would be pretty hard to keep that drive going,” Murphy said. “Unless he wants to win 30 medals or something.”

Maybe he does. Leaving cynicism about Phelps’ retirement aside, however, his performance here was remarkable — especially if you had seen him two years ago in Santa Clara. A swim meet there was one of his first comeback appearances that ended the “retirement” he had announced in London.

United States’ Michael Phelps and Britain’s James Guy compete in the men’s 4 x 100-meter medley relay final during the swimming

United States’ Michael Phelps and Britain’s James Guy compete in the men’s 4 x 100-meter medley relay final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

That afternoon in 2014 as he answered questions on the Santa Clara International Swim Center pool deck, Phelps had a full beard and mustache. He still looked a little overweight. He did not even sound as if he had a firm goal in mind for the comeback.

“You get a question like, ‘What will this do for your legacy?’ ” Phelps told the small assemblage of reporters. “It doesn’t matter. I’m doing this because I enjoy it. … It’s very hard to have something not be part of your life that’s been part of your life. As much as I say that I can’t wait to get out of the pool, I think that’s just a lie. Something keeps drawing me back into the water.”

Remember that quote. Word on the swimming vine was that his mother had urged Phelps to get back into the pool. He has a habit of getting into trouble when he doesn’t have the structure of training and a schedule in his life. We don’t need to recap that trouble, involving too much partying. But the evidence is the evidence. The new son and steady relationship might make a difference. Let’s hope so. Phelps deserves as many victory laps as he wants, the rest of his life.

I saved my notebook from that day in Santa Clara. Phelps told reporters he had “things that are still unfinished that I want to accomplish,” but he would not reveal what they were.

I think now, we know. After 63 career Olympic races that covered a watery span of more than seven miles, Phelps was able to show once again he was the only man on the planet who could bend an entire world to his swimming will. No refunds needed.

Read Mark Purdy’s blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/purdy. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

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