Column: Even without a swimsuit, Phelps still biggest name at world championships in Barcelona

  • Article by: PAUL NEWBERRY , AP National Writer
  • Updated: July 26, 2013 - 4:25 PM

BARCELONA, Spain — Michael Phelps will be dropping by this dazzling city on the Mediterranean during the world swimming championships.

He'll be wined and dined and feted. He'll make appearances on behalf of sponsors that still find his name is worth big bucks, even in retirement. He'll watch the competition from the stands, cheering on former rivals he used to beat with regularity, as well as up-and-comers aiming to be the next Baltimore Bullet.

He won't swim a stroke.

Yet he's still the biggest name here.

Every press conference includes at least a few questions about Phelps: Is he coming back? What did he mean to the sport? Can anyone ever replace him?

With apologies to a very worthy list of would-be successors, led by 18-year-old American Missy Franklin, the answer to that last question is a resounding no.

"Michael has his own legacy," Franklin acknowledged Friday. "He created a path in swimming that was such a bright light for all of us. It's going to shine for years and years to come. No one is filling his legacy. It speaks for itself. I hope to have my own legacy in the sport."

For the past couple of months, there's been rampant speculation that Phelps is plotting a comeback, that he's easing back into workouts with an eye toward trading all those glamorous walks down the red carpet for the inglorious grind of staring at the black line on the bottom of a pool.

He was only 27 when he walked away last summer after the London Olympics, having piled up a haul of medals that will be hard for anyone to eclipse. Eighteen golds. Twenty-two medals in all.

Phelps had set a plan in motion years ago: Break Mark Spitz's record for most gold medals at one Olympics. Check. Win more Olympic medals than anyone. Check. Walk away from the grueling sport before he turned 30. Check.

"You can never say never, but I don't think so," said Jacco Verhaeren, director of the Dutch national team, when he got the inevitable question about Phelps coming out of retirement. "He's a top athlete and they know when it's enough. And I think it's enough for him. I think he made it so very clear.

"Why would he?"

That was essentially the same line I got from Phelps when I talked with him by phone back in December. It was a few days before Christmas, and word had just come down that he beat LeBron James in balloting for The Associated Press male athlete of the year.

Phelps was at a picturesque golf course in Mexico then, getting ready to go out late in the afternoon to play a few more holes with renowned golf coach Hank Haney for a television show.

Of course, I asked Phelps if he was ready to announce his comeback.

He chuckled and responded, very convincingly, that it made no sense to give up a good life he had so richly earned to do nothing more than add to his legacy — and maybe tarnish it.

"I'm sure I could come back in another four years. But why?" Phelps said. "I've done everything I wanted to do. There's no point for me to come back."

Which does make a lot of sense.

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