LONDON - Willie Mays stumbled around in a Mets uniform, and Babe Ruth finished with the Boston Braves.
Michael Jordan tried baseball, then playing for the Washington Wizards, and is currently failing as a basketball executive. Tiger Woods, the greatest of phenoms in the most difficult of sports, hit a career wall after his car hit that fire hydrant.
It's hard to go out on top when you're accustomed to life as a star, and it's hard to go out gracefully when the world has bowed before you, but on Saturday night, in what he promises was his last race, Michael Phelps went out a winner, and without a wink.
He promises he won't return, not for a ceremonial swim, and certainly not for the Rio Olympics in 2016. "I think if you can say greatest Olympian of all time, there's no need to move forward," he said. "It's time for other things."
Phelps cried before the 400-meter medley relay, and he promised to "journal'' about it later. During the race, he was the same as he ever was. Phelps dived into the pool with the Americans trailing and touched the wall with a considerable lead.
The resulting U.S. victory gave Phelps his 22nd medal and 18th gold in his Olympic career, both records.
So, of course, we want more. Phelps shook his head.
"I told myself I never want to swim when I'm 30, and no offense to those people who are 30 in swimming, but that was something I always said," Phelps said during what might have been his most revealing news conference ever. "I turn 30 in three years. I just don't want to swim another three years. I've been able to do everything I've wanted. I've been able to put my mind to the goals I've wanted to achieve, and Bob and I have been able to do every single thing.''
In the warmup pool before his last race, Phelps thanked Bob Bowman, his longtime coach. Bowman told him that wasn't fair, because Bowman suddenly had tears streaming down his cheeks, and, as Phelps put it, "I had mine hidden behind my goggles."
Once he hit the pool deck, there were no more tears. Phelps brought his bad-man mojo to the race, and hugged his teammates afterward. As he walked through the bottom level of the Aquatics Center, he yelled, "No more warm-downs!"
Unlike in Beijing, Phelps spearheaded the United States' team success without overwhelming it. The U.S. swim team captured 30 medals, including 16 by the men. Phelps missed out on a bronze when he faded in the first race of the Olympics, and on a gold when he faded in the 200 butterfly, then finished the meet with three consecutive golds.
"I think after that first race, our attitude was, 'What have we got to lose?''' Bowman said. "So we just had fun with the rest of the meet."
"Fun" is one way to put it.
"I could probably sum my career up in a couple of words and say, 'I did it,'" he said. "Through the ups and downs of my career I've been able to do everything I wanted to accomplish. I've been able to do things nobody else has ever done."
Almost as rare is the ability to walk away while there's still a trophy in your hand.