Michael Phelps received the biggest cheer of any swimmer before the final races of the Rio Games Saturday and, emerging from the pool with one last gold medal, the cheering continued.

That was as expected as it was deserved, as the most-decorated Olympian in history called it a day with a total haul of 23 golds, 3 silver and 2 bronze medals to his name.

"Getting off the bus walking in to the pool tonight, I almost felt myself starting to cry," the 31-year-old told reporters after his final swim. "Last warm-up, last time putting on a suit, last time walking out in front of thousands of people representing my country."

He didn't add "last time winning a gold medal," although few could have accused him of misplaced confidence if he had. Phelps' final gold was never really in doubt in the men's 4x100-metre medley relay, though Adam Peaty gave Britain a slim chance during a strong breaststroke leg.

But Phelps immediately tilted the equilibrium back in favour of the US when he leapt in for the butterfly leg and from that point on there was only going to be one winner - again.

Phelps is a five-time Olympian though his appearance at Sydney 2000 as a 15-year-old, in light of his later achievements, feels like somewhat of a prequel. He secured fifth in the 200m butterfly, the event he would go on to consider his own.

A clutch of medals, most of them gold, followed in Athens 2004 but it was in Beijing that he peaked. In 2008 he entered eight events across freestyle, medley, butterfly and relays and won all eight, breaking Mark Spitz's long-standing record from 1972 as the most successful Games for a swimmer.

Phelps retired after London 2012 with yet more medals but his loss in the 200m butterfly rankled. He regained that title in Rio, and more, saying the final victories were "the cherry on top of the cake I wanted."

"I can't say it enough, being able to cap it off with these Games, is just the perfect way to finish."

Phelps' future absence from American - and world - swimming will not be easily filled. His coach Bob Bowman, with whom he has worked for 20 years, is adamant Phelps is as close as possible to unique.

"Absolutely not," he insisted when asked if he could find another 11-year-old like Phelps. "I'm not even looking. He's too special. It's not even once in a generation, it's one in 10 generations someone like Michael comes along."

Phelps pointed out that pictures have been emerging of his current team-mates, including 19-year-old prodigy Katie Ledecky, taken with him while they were children and he was already an Olympic champion.

And looking at the likes of Singapore's Joseph Schooling, who beat him in the 100m butterfly, and British breaststroke world record holder Peaty, it is clear Phelps did achieve his goal of changing swimming for the better, just as Michael Jordan did for basketball.

"This all started with the dream as a little kid to change the sport of swimming. To do what nobody else had ever done and it turned out pretty cool."

It remains to be seen if Phelps sticks to his promises about retirement this time, unlike four years earlier. But with fiancee Nicole and baby son Boomer now making demands on his time, he insists he is in a better place to make the transition to normal life.

"I'm in the best place I've ever been in my life, amazing family, amazing support staff. Pretty much happy all the time," he concluded.

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