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Column: Phelps still biggest name at swim worlds

Friday - 7/26/2013, 6:12pm  ET

FILE - In this March 2007 file photo, U.S. swimming star Michael Phelps, left, walks with his coach Bob Bowman during a training session at the World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, Australia. While Phelps retired after the London Games, having won all 18 of his gold medals with Bowman at his side, the coach who molded the winningest Olympian ever did some consulting work for several countries before returning to what he does best in May. He'll be coaching the American men in Barcelona, where the pool swimming begins on Sunday. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- 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.

Phelps' records are already somewhere out in the stratosphere, far out of reach for anyone in the foreseeable future. Certainly, there's a nobleness to going out on top because so few athletes actually do it. Jim Brown comes to mind. So does Barry Sanders. But, mostly, our superstars will scratch and claw to hang on for one year too long, often looking downright pathetic compared to what they were in their prime.

For now, our last image of Phelps, the swimmer, was a triumphant walk around the pool deck in London, shortly after he had earned his fourth gold medal of those games and picked up a special award from FINA, the world governing body, for his lifelong body of work.

Not a bad way to go out.

"I wanted to leave that way," Phelps told me back in December. "I've done everything I wanted to do in this sport. I don't know a lot of people who can say that. I know you've seen major athletes make comebacks. But I'm on top of the world. This really is a dream come true for me. It's still like I have to wake up and say, 'This is reality. This is really what happened to me in my life.' It's the coolest thing you can say."

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