When Michael Phelps led the USA team out into the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony at the Maracana, he was already the most decorated Olympian of all time. As he showed over the next two weeks, he was in no mood to rest on his laurels.
Phelps is a remarkable competitor and in his fifth and final Olympics was back for more. The 31-year-old had retired from the sport after winning six medals at London 2012, but returned two years later and had a point to prove in Rio. He wanted to show that he could still do it – that, even with advancing years, he was still a peerless presence in the pool. If he was to bow out now, with a clutch of immensely talented competitors straining to succeed him, he would not do so quietly.
There was a glint in Phelps’ eyes as he took his place to swim the second leg of the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. His contribution, ensuring that the USA overtook a French team that had started superbly, proved decisive and if there were any doubts about his readiness for a return to Olympic competition they had been dispelled in spectacular fashion. Team USA won gold – Phelps’ 19th overall.
Now he was on a roll and his next success came in an individual event. Phelps had already won two golds and a silver in the 200m butterfly at previous Games; this time he wanted his title back and he delivered in dramatic fashion. Edging out Japan’s Masato Saka by 0.04 seconds in the tightest of contests, he raised his hands to the air and pointed to the sky. It had been hard work, but Phelps was on top of the world once more.
It was a simply astonishing set of performances. Nobody else at Rio 2016 was able to match his five goals and single silver. His hunger had been questioned, and so had his ability to compete at an age that sees swimmers rarely manage to win consistently. He proved any sceptics wrong – and reasserted his status as an Olympian whose achievements will be an inspiration to others for decades.