If at age 40 and recently put through the trash compactor that was the 2009 New Orleans Saints defense, quarterback Brett Favre couldn't stay retired, then how in heaven's name can Michael Phelps walk away from everything he has ever known on top and at 27?
The question must be asked, not because Mr. Phelps has ever given any indication of going back on his promise to be done with swimming by age 30, but because he is attempting something many have tried to do with sincerest intentions – and failed.
Of course, what does he have left to do?
Hit a cool quarter century of Olympic medals? Be the first man to defend an Olympic swimming title three times? Get free plane tickets to Rio in 2016?
Motivations become scarcer every time he hits the pool.
These things aren't always logical. In fact, they are frequently illogical, so a well-deserved dose of skepticism usually greets the retirement announcement of any elite athlete who still has his head attached and is not yet drawing Social Security.
After all, didn't Phelps tell us all how much he loved racing? How is that going to work now? Selling sheetrock or becoming the new weatherman for WBAL-TV might not exactly scratch that itch.
"I think I've been kind of confused and out there all day," Phelps told USA Today Sunday. "Don't know what to do. I don't know. It's weird not having swimming anymore."
Still hates to lose
But for all the aw-shucks comments, something about Phelps became clear this Olympics. He still hates to lose, and he still understands how much work is needed not to lose. In the year since Phelps decided to get serious about coming back to Beijing, he has put in as much work as he could. For someone as naturally gifted as Phelps, that was enough to win him four gold medals. But it was not enough to win him two more, and he acknowledged it. The field was catching up.
Now, on the cusp of another four-year Olympic cycle, he has to ask himself two questions, and during the next four years, these questions will not change:
- Do I want to put in the work needed to be able to win every race I enter, knowing that I will be four years older in 2016?
- Am I willing to lower that standard simply to compete?
Right now, the answers are "no" and "no." Will they change? Possibly. But there is perhaps less chance of that than for other athletes who have attempted comebacks, not only because the training to remain an elite swimmer is so all-consuming, but also because of that deep desire not to finish second.
Indeed, the evidence from this year is that Phelps hates to lose more than he likes to win. He has said that he only got serious about stepping up his game for Beijing when Ryan Lochte treated him like kitty litter in the 2011 world championships.
As a swimmer, there are no shortcuts – there is no team to bail him out if he is not to his own phenomenally high standards. And if he does not meet those high standards, he will lose – Chad le Clos provided evidence of that.
On Sunday, American swimmer Dara Torres asked on Twitter if anyone wants to make a bet with her about whether Phelps stays retired.
Phelps said he would.
The prospect of "6 a.m. wakeup calls and jumping in that cold pool and gone and out the door" will keep him retired, Phelps told USA Today.
Of all the people on this earth, Michael Phelps knows the enormous task it is to be Michael Phelps, the Olympian.
Now he just has to learn how to be Michael Phelps, the former Olympian.