More kids took up swimming. More advertisers jumped on board. More viewers tuned in to watch.
While swimming is unlikely to ever match the appeal of football or baseball, it has carved out a nice little niche for itself amid all the other athletic options in the United States — largely due to Phelps‘ amazing accomplishments and aw-shucks appeal.
Just the fact that he won over James shows just how much pull Phelps still has. James had an amazing year by any measure: The league MVP won his first NBA title with the Miami Heat, picking up finals MVP honors along the way, and then starred on the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team in London.
Phelps already had won the AP award in 2008 after his eight gold medals in Beijing, which broke Mark Spitz’s record. Phelps got it again with a performance that didn’t quite match up to the Great Haul of China, but was amazing in its own right.
After the embarrassment of being photographed taking a hit from a marijuana pipe and questioning whether he still had the desire to go on, Phelps returned with a vengeance as the London Games approached. Never mind that he was already the winningest Olympian ever. Never mind that he could’ve eclipsed the record for overall medals just by swimming on the relays.
He wanted to be one of those rare athletes who went out on top.
“That’s just who he is,” said Bob Bowman, his longtime coach. “He just couldn’t live with himself if knew he didn’t go out there and give it good shot and really know he’s competitive. He doesn’t know anything else but to give that kind of effort and have those kind of expectations.”
Phelps got off to a rocky start in London, finishing fourth in the 400-meter individual medley, blown out of the water by his friend and rival, Ryan Lochte. It was only the second time that Phelps had not at least finished in the top three of an Olympic race, the first coming way back in 2000 when he was fifth in his only event of the Sydney Games as a 15-year-old.
But he wasn’t going out like that.
Phelps rebounded to become the biggest star at the pool, edging Lochte in the 200 IM, contributing to a pair of relay victories, and winning his final individual race, the 100 butterfly. There were two silvers, as well, leaving Phelps with a staggering resume that will be awfully difficult for anyone to eclipse.
His 18 golds are twice as many as anyone else in Olympic history. His 22 medals are four clear of Larisa Latynina, a Soviet-era gymnast, and seven more than the next athlete on the list. Heck, if Phelps was a nation, he’d be 58th in the medal standings, just one behind India (population: 1.2 billion).
“When I’m flying all over the place, I write a lot in my journal,” Phelps said. “I kind of relive all the memories, all the moments I had throughout my career. That’s pretty special. I’ve never done that before. It’s amazing when you see it all on paper.”
Four months into retirement, Phelps has no desire to get back in the pool. Oh, he’ll swim every now and then for relaxation, using the water to unwind rather than putting in one of his famously grueling practices. Golf is his passion at the moment, but he’s also found time to cheer on his hometown NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, and start looking around for a racehorse that he and Bowman can buy together.