After Michael Phelps won his 17th Olympic gold medal, his 21st overall, with one more a gold on Saturday yet to come, he was asked about the impact he'd had on his sport.
He mentioned something about handing the torch over to the next generation of American swimmers, and then he said: "We've been able to take the sport to a whole new level. That's something that's been pretty cool for me to be a part of."
Pretty cool, all right.
Pretty cool for all of us who watched, too.
In the moments after he earned that 18th gold in the 4x100-meter medley relay and his 22nd piece of precious Olympic metal, Phelps walked off the deck for the last time looking like an athlete who could not have been more fulfilled or satisfied. Having claimed twice as many golds as any other Olympian, having taken his place as the champion of champions, Phelps' work was done.
Not only had he lifted his sport to new heights, hearing his country's national anthem from the top of the podium more often than any man or woman in history, he hauled everybody else along for the ride, also allowing them us to hear it.
Every time he dove into the pool, he was making history right in front of our eyes. Sports fans love that because it also puts in place mile markers in our lives. Anyone who witnessed Phelps swimming and winning at the Olympics, in person or on television, will remember having done so for the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years and they'll remember where and who they were at that point.
I still can recall watching Bob Beamon's iconic long jump at the Mexico City Games in 1968, when he extended the world record in the event by nearly two feet. It was remarkable. It was astounding. It was mind-boggling. Although Beamon's record was surpassed 23 years later, it remains 44 years after it was set as the Olympic record.
At the time, I was in grade school Lombardy Elementary. My best friends were Greg Stephens and Kevin Walsh and Jimmy Myers. The cutest girl in my sixth-grade class was Debbie Smith. My favorite food at that juncture was the steak sandwich at a local dive called "The Charcoal Pit," where you could chase that sub down with a ridiculous 26-scoop ice cream dessert known as the "Kitchen Sink."
I watched those games from my family's TV den, alongside my dad, who is gone now, having passed 11 years ago. It's a fond memory.
Where and who are you, then, as Phelps distinguished himself as the greatest Olympian ever? And that's exactly what he's done.
There are arguments that go a different way. Some say Jesse Owens' historic performance in Berlin in 1936 puts him at the top. Others say Carl Lewis. Sebastian Coe, the head of the London Games, recently said for him it would be Steve Redgrave, a British rower who won five gold medals.
"You could probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally, [Phelps] is the most successful," Coe said. "My personal view is, I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful."
Greatest? Most successful?
I don't know how to distinguish between the two, especially not in favor, on the one hand, of a rower who totaled one-fourth of Phelps' medal count.
Some seem to believe the medals come quicker and easier in swimming, that there's not that much difference between the butterfly and freestyle and backstroke and breaststroke at varying distances, that athletes could be doing the doggy-paddle for all they care. But those skeptics probably never spent much time in the pool.
There might be an advantage of participating in additional relay events, which has boosted Phelps' medal total, including that last one on Saturday. But his dominance was and is clear to see, and it speaks for itself.
And maybe the best part about what Phelps has done in London is this: He's finished strong, getting four golds and two silvers. Few lasting athletic accomplishments exceed the greatest athlete ever in a sport ending his career in great fashion, with past greatness freshened by present greatness.
Greatness, in all tenses, all around.
As for the future, it will bring those fond memories for the swimmer himself, and the rest of us, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.