RIO DE JANEIRO — Forget about Ryan Lochte's blueish-gray hair. Katie Ledecky's secrets to success. Or Missy Franklin's admission that she was emotionally overwhelmed at Olympic trials last month. The biggest news to come out of USA Swimming's pre-competition news conference Wednesday afternoon was a single word uttered by Michael Phelps.
As in "potential" last Olympics.
Throughout Phelps' comeback for Rio — he retired after the 2012 London Games and returned to competition in early 2014 — he has insisted emphatically that the 2016 Games would be the last competition of his career. He has talked about focusing on raising his three-month-old son, Boomer, and helping his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, at Arizona State University.
But in a room packed with more than 250 reporters from all over the globe Wednesday, Phelps left open the possibility of competing after Rio. And he did so without anyone even asking the question. He instead paused midway through an answer about what it will be like to compete in Rio with Boomer in the stands and said, "I'll say this just in case of a comeback … my potential last Olympics," Phelps said. "Just so you guys don't beat me to death if I comeback. No, I'm not. But I'll just say that."
It was the first time that Phelps, 31, has even hinted Rio might not be the end.
Lochte, who turned 32 on Wednesday, said later that he understood where Phelps was coming from. Lochte, who is rooming with Phelps in the Olympic Village, said he felt like Phelps would be back after London and he has that same hunch now.
"When you have that passion and that thrill of competition and then it goes away, you miss it," Lochte said. "I think he's gonna come back."
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was selected as the United States flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
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Phelps is scheduled to swim three events in Rio — the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley — but could swim as many as six if coaches elect to put him on the 4×100- and 4×200-meter freestyle relay and the 4×100-meter medley relay. He's currently ranked No. 2 in the world in the 100 fly and 200 IM and sixth in the 200 fly. Should Phelps win gold in any of those events he would become the oldest gold medalist in Olympic swimming history. Lochte could also make the same history in the 200 IM and a potential relay.
In Rio, Phelps is not only captain for the United States team but also the flag-bearer for the entire American delegation. It's a complete change from a year earlier, when Phelps was not allowed to compete at world championships as part of his suspension from USA Swimming for his September 2014 DUI arrest.
Phelps competed at the U.S. Nationals in San Antonio instead last summer, where his times were faster than the world championship gold medalists in the 100 and 200 fly and the 200 IM. After that meet, Bowman suggested that maybe Rio shouldn't be the end. "If he's swimming like he is now, why the hell should he quit?" Bowman said at the time. "He's not like Tiger [Woods], a shell of himself. He's his real self."
Bowman said he suggested as much to Phelps during lunch one day in San Antonio and the swimmer told him "no way."
The coach concluded that interview last summer by saying Rio was setting up for the perfect ending to the greatest Olympic career of all time. "I'd like him to go there, kick the s— out of everybody and leave at the top of his game," Bowman said then. "Go be [Michael] Jordan against the Jazz. Don't go play for the Wizards."
For the better part of two years, that seemed like the plan. But now it's anyone's guess.
Phelps is as media savvy as athletes come. He wouldn't suggest even the slightest possibility of competing in Tokyo in 2020 without something behind it — especially after spending the past two years closing and locking that door at every potential opportunity. And as unrealistic as it seems, there are those who don't even think Tokyo would be the end. Former Olympian Tyler Clary said at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit in March that if Los Angeles ends up winning the right to host the 2024 games, he predicted both Phelps and Lochte would try to make the team at 39 and 40 years old, respectively.
"I'm not joking," Clary said. "Even if it's just a 50 — I could totally see those guys doing whatever they could to compete in those Games."