LONDON – As Michael Phelps took a final bow closing out his remarkable career with an 18th gold medal and a thundering ovation worthy of his feats at the London Games on Saturday it was clear the sport would miss him more than the United States swim team.
Phelps was again the leading man in London but it was an impressive supporting cast that did much of the heavy-lifting for the Americans who won 16 gold medals, half of those on offer, and 30 medals in total, 20 more than second-placed China.
Success was almost evenly split between men and women, the men taking 16 medals including eight gold, while the women clamed 14 medals and also had eight gold.
“We really didn’t have any goals, we just talked about everyone getting better and they all know what it is about,” said men’s head coach Gregg Troy. “I think we have a nucleus of a real good thing.
“We are going to be good four years from now.”
While offering only occasional flashes of his Beijing brilliance where he won a record eight gold medals, Phelps’ contribution to the U.S. effort was still not insignificant, with four gold and two silver pushing his career total to a record 22.
But what is likely to be missed most about Phelps is his ability to attract casual fans to the sport.
The closest thing swimming has to a global talisman, Phelps brought cache to any swim meet he competed in much the same way Tiger Woods attracts attention to any golf event he graces.
“He has done so much for the sport, he really has opened up our sport and let the world know that swimming is a sport too,” said Allison Schmitt, whose Olympic haul included three gold, a silver and bronze.
“He’s such a dedicated athlete, so inspiring.”
The U.S. team, however, are unlikely to skip a beat as they push onto the 2016 Rio Games without Phelps leading the charge as the new generation of American medal machines were surfacing in the London pool.
Seventeen year-old Missy Franklin, winner of four gold and a bronze has been hailed as the team’s new face while 15-year-old Katie Ledecky announced her arrival in the 800 metres freestyle with a swim that was within a whisker of the world record.
On the same night that Phelps claimed his final individual gold with a stirring victory in the 100 butterfly, the two teenagers were there to pick up the torch, Franklin taking the 200 backstroke while Ledecky won the 800 and upset the partisan crowd cheering for Beijing champion Rebecca Adlington.
“There’s so many people retiring, it’s going to be a whole new group,” said Franklin.
“I think there are so many members of the team this year and the national youth team that are coming up that are going to help carry on this incredible generation that we had before us.”
The men’s side is also rich in talent but with no-one likely to step into the enormous gap left by Phelps’ retirement.
Ryan Lochte stepped up with five medals, two gold, two silver and a bronze but he is a year older than the 27-year-old Phelps.
Despite Phelps insistence that Saturday was his final Olympic race, many suspect Phelps will be unable to resist the lure of the Olympics four years from now.
Troy would welcome Phelps back with open arms but said the perfect ending to a career has already been written and U.S. swimming will move on.
“We’ll miss him next time around,” said Troy.
“I think he is one of the best in sports, he’s a true competitor.
“The Olympic record speaks for itself and what he did in Beijing. He was perfect in Beijing and it’s hard to be perfect in anything.”