In 2012, Ryan Lochte knew what others didn't. Michael Phelps wasn't going to retire after the London Games like he said he would. At 27, he was a young man, could still win golds and was the rare swimmer who could make millions doing it.
Lochte nailed it. Phelps came back, was somehow even stronger after a DUI suspension and is now four-for-four at the Olympics with a chance of sweeping his events in what he says will definitely – definitely – be his final Olympics.
Ryan Lochte still doesn't buy it. One night after the possible final race of his career, Lochte was asked by Matt Lauer on Friday's Today about whether he'd be around in Tokyo. Lochte said he would, then when asked whether he could say the same thing about Phelps, he didn't hesitate.
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“I can definitely say that because I guarantee he will be there. I think so, I really think so: So Michael, I'll see you in Tokyo.
I agreed with Lochte in 2012. I thought there was no chance Phelps was going to go out like he did in London. This time around, while not discounting Lochte's opinion at all, I'm swinging the other way, at least for now. Here's why:
1. Phelps is about to go out on top.
Whatever happens Friday and Saturday night, Phelps is going to leave Rio with at least five gold medals and maybe even six. It's the ultimate way to go out – the opposite of London. But Phelps' Rio, as it stands, is like Peyton Manning going out with a Super Bowl title (except Phelps wasn't decrepit and propped up by a defense in order to win). The Rio performance is the perfect ending for a sporting fairy tale two decades in the making. An old-man comeback in Tokyo wouldn't affect anything that came before it (do you remember Mark Spitz's attempted comeback in 1992 – exactly) but why go out on anything less than perfection?
2. Phelps will be 35 in Tokyo.
If we say that nutrition and stroke science and the better understanding of the human body have helped older swimmers perform deeper into their careers (and we're not talking about sprinters like 35-year-old Anthony Ervin – they're freaks of nature), that might get us to where Phelps (31) and Lochte (32) are now. Four years from now when they'll be 35 and 36, respectively, is a huge ask.
3. Phelps has purpose now.
The key reason nobody bought that Phelps was going to stay retired last time is that he had nothing to do in retirement. He was a 27-year-old millionaire who acted like a frat boy. He was adrift. And, as he found out, that can only last so long. He needed something to work for and found it by training for Rio. This time, Phelps has a soon-to-be wife, a baby and is mature enough to start devoting himself to other pursuits – not just golf, but family, charity, helping build his sport, etc. He's got things to do.
4. No, Phelps saying this was “my potential last Olympics” doesn't mean he's coming back.
Every news organization couldn't wait to jump on Phelps' pre-Olympic comment that this was his “potential” last Olympics, saying he left the door open for a return. And, yes, he did. What he was actually doing was speaking the truth after learning his lesson four years ago. No one should ever talk about the future in absolute terms. We don't know how we'll feel tomorrow let alone next week, next month or next year. This is a more-self aware Phelps. But with that self-awareness comes the knowledge that doing this again – starting a comeback that would probably begin after two years off – will be exponentially harder in 2018 and that the Tokyo Games in 2020 aren't going to result in six golds no matter what.
5. The landscape might determine Phelps' plans.
Phelps kept an eye at the results in his absence and, as he said in famously drawing him into a beef with Chad Le Clos, the times weren't fast. He knew he could come back and win. But if Phelps sees 21-year-old Joseph Schooling, who could beat him Friday night for 100m gold, make a leap with his times or that any of the Japanese swimmers who medaled in the IMs begins to improve (as they almost certainly will with the prospects of swimming in front of home-nation fans), then any little sliver of a comeback hope goes away. But if swimming stagnates in Phelps' retirement, then maybe?
6. Mothers always know.
When Debbie Phelps was asked in London about Michael's retirement, she joked that she hoped he'd come back because she “really wanted to go to Rio.” Deep down, you got the feeling she expected she would. When she was asked about Tokyo on Today (after the Lochte interview) she said she would love to go to Tokyo and “has the race picked out” if Michael decides to return. She said it as a joke. There was no all-knowing motherly vibe this time to suggest she believed it.
I can't make my final prediction until Phelps' final race on Saturday night. In London, all you had to do was look in his eyes when it was all over to see he wasn't entirely sure about the whole retirement thing. But this is a different Michael Phelps. He had his goals, he's achieving his goals and he's doing it with a radiant calm we've never seen before. If he wins the 100 on Friday and takes his sixth gold in six races in Saturday's relay, then I think Phelps sticks to the retirement. But as we said, the future is unwritten. And mom wants a trip to Japan.