Phelps' last swim of historic, unprecedented career ends in gold

The U.S. 4x100 medley team celebrates after winning gold in Phelps' last race. (US Presswire)

It was the last swim of Michael Phelps' career.

How do you think it ended?

Exactly. Gold again. His 18th. And the 22nd medal of his career, both benchmarks that could and should stand for decades. Phelps' 18 golds are twice as many as any other Olympic athlete ever -- or at least in the modern, recorded era (since 1896).

The United States' 4x100 men's medley relay team touched the wall in the final swimming event of the 2012 Olympics in 3:29.35, beating out silver medalists Japan, who swam their medley in  3:31.26. Australia took the bronze with a 3:31.58 finishing time.

The world record of 3:27.28, set by the United States in 2009, was not sniffed, but that's hardly important. What matters here is the final, dominant statement not only of Phelps' career, but also of the United States' desecration of the field at swim events in this Olympiad. The United States won 30 medals in the pool at these Games -- 20 more than second-best China, which had 10. The gold total? Sixteen to five in favor of the U.S.

As for the race, Matt Grevers gave the U.S. the first leg of this medley relay, swimming his backstroke in 53.04, a leading .34-second advantage on France and .82 one on Japan.

Brendan Hansen (breaststroke), gave up the lead, however, and halfway through the race it was the Japanese with a .21-second lead on the United States. A surprise, to be certain. So it was on Phelps to make up the ground. In his final Olympic swim, he was brilliant again. At the turn, 50 meters to finish in the relay's third leg and his final one, he was .26 behind Japan.

Then came that patented 50-meter Phelps finish. And he pushed. And he heaved. Bounding faster and further through the water, he threw his guts silly until hitting his final wall. When he touched, the U.S. had a .26-second lead back, pushing past Japan and surprising second-place Japan, 1.73 behind, a distant third.

With Adrian in the freestyle, coming home for the final 50 meters, the U.S. grew its margin to 1.63 seconds ahead on Japan. Australian missile James Magnussen would not be able to overcome the deficit, as the order of the three remained true on the final split of the race. 

And so Phelps leaves his sport with a legacy unmatched and, prior to his career, unforeseen in any way. He's universally received as the greatest swimmer in the history of this planet by anyone with a modicum of understanding of the sport. Plenty believe that 22/18 mark also makes him the best Olympian the world has ever seen. That debate rages on, while Phelps' career comes to an end.

He must be doing it at the right time, because right now, it feels like he's walking away too soon. But the best know when to exit. And there he goes, still wet, his legend never fully ever out of the pool.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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