After winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Michael Phelps got fat, at least by the standards of a guy with a concave gut. He kept eating his extraordinary, calorie-rich diet, carpet-bombing his belly with pizza and pasta, but he couldn't bring himself to swim.
He blew off practices. He flew to Vegas with buddies on a whim. He admitted to burnout, and when someone snapped a cellphone picture of him holding a bong, he had to face his mother's questions.
What did he think he was doing? Didn't he know that people looked up to him?
They still do. Friday night, in the final individual event of his Olympic career, Phelps took a victory lap, and his peers cheered the loudest. For 100 more meters, for one more race in the grueling butterfly, he reminded his teammates why they revere him, and his competitors why they should fear him for at least one more day.
Phelps started slowly, fell to next-to-last at the turn, then surged past the field to win his 21st medal and 17th gold of his Olympic career. If he and his teammates win the 400 medley relay on Saturday at the Aquatics Center, Phelps will have won gold in his last three races; will have packed a slump, a comeback and a triumphant farewell into one Olympics.
"I don't even want to complain about going slower or having a bad turn or finish," Phelps said moments after the race. "I'm not even going to say any of that. I'm just happy that that last one was a win. That's all I wanted, coming into tonight."
As Phelps was churning toward the end of his career, his fellow American swimmers were turning the medal ceremonies into a Star Spangled Banner mix tape.
Katie Ledecky, the 15-year-old from Phelps' home state of Maryland, set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle. She said Phelps inspired her with a pre-race speech; Phelps said he merely gave her a high-five.
Missy Franklin, perhaps the emerging female Phelps, set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke, and when she wasn't talking about decorating overalls for her high school's homecoming this fall, she was crediting Phelps with teaching her to remain calm.
Swimmers, American or not, speak of Phelps as if he were a god, even when he's sitting right next to them.
"Michael was the first Olympian I ever met, when I was 6, right before I started swimming," Ledecky said. "So, to hear 'good luck' from him before the race was really cool. I just thought back to that and it really calmed me down."
Phelps has become both the Babe Ruth and the Mariano Rivera of his sport, both trendsetter and shut-down closer. His failures early in the Olympics -- failing to medal in his first race and failing to win gold in his specialty -- reminded the world why dominating a meet is so hard. His successes the last two nights reminded the world that he could hang around and whip them a while longer if he so chose.
"I always said I wanted to change the sport and to take it to a new level," Phelps said. "That's been a goal of mine since I was 15. If I can say I've done that, that's all I want.
"The sport has done so much for me, and I will continue to give back."
Said Bob Bowman, his coach: "You know, he could keep racing, if he wanted to. Physically, he could do it."
Phelps, though, seems to be enjoying the countdown, checking off his last individual race, his last warm-down swim. He's looking forward to scaling back his diet and living a more normal life.
Saturday night he'll touch the wall for the last time in competition, and he'll probably wave one more gold medal for photographers poolside.
"He's helped people rethink the impossible," Franklin said.
Phelps is finding that for a swimmer, the best way to say goodbye is to wave from the middle of the podium.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. firstname.lastname@example.org