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Usain Bolt is down to his last, blazing curtain call

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Muhammad Ali stood alone on many fronts, but Joe Frazier, George Foreman and a few others still stood toe-to-toe with him in the ring. Jack Nicklaus contended with Arnold Palmer on the front end of his career and Tom Watson on the back end.

Usain Bolt? Nobody has been a match for him, on or off the track.

The man who reshaped the record book and saved his sport is saying goodbye. His sprints through the 100m and Jamaica’s 4x100m relay at the world championships, which begin Friday, are expected to produce golds yet again, and leave track with this difficult question: Who can possibly take his place?

“You would have to have someone who’s dominating, and no one’s doing that,” said Michael Johnson, the former world-record holder at 200m and 400m and perhaps the sport’s brightest star in the 1990s. “You’d have to have someone who has that something special like he has, in terms of personality and presence. You’re not going to have that.”

Though he will not retire undefeated, Bolt stands in the rarest of company: an athlete who was never beaten when the stakes were greatest. And with a showman’s flair as transcendent as his raw speed — Chicken McNuggets for dinner, his fabled “To di World” pose for dessert and dancing away at nightclubs till dawn — he hoisted his entire, troubled sport upon his shoulders and made it watchable and relevant.

Since his era of dominance began in 2008, Bolt went undefeated at the Olympics — 9 for 9 — in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m. (One of those medals was stripped because of doping by a teammate on the 2008 relay team.)

He has set, and re-set, the world records in all three events. His marks of 19.30, then 19.19, at 200m, were once thought virtually impossible. He set a goal of breaking 19 seconds in Rio last summer, and when he came up short, it became clear the barrier will be safe for years.

At the world championships, Bolt’s only “loss” came in 2011, when he was disqualified for a false start in the 100m. Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake won the title that year, as well as the Jamaican national championships at 100m 200m leading to the London Olympics. Heading back to London five years later, Blake is an afterthought.

And Bolt’s mastery of this sport remains unchallenged.

“I’ll be sad to see someone like him go,” said America’s Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s longest and sturdiest challenger, who has been disingenuously portrayed as the brooding bad boy set against Bolt’s carefree party guy. “He’s such a big figure in our sport. Not only is he a big figure, but the kind of guy who always will be a competitor when he steps onto the line.”

Though it’s tricky to compare dominance in track to that in any other sport, there’s an element of Nicklaus in Bolt’s dominance. Impressive as his 18 major championships are, Nicklaus’ 19 second-place finishes and 73 top-10s spoke to his ability to get into the mix in most of the majors over the quarter-century while he was collecting titles. Nicklaus had to fend off Palmer, Watson, Johnny Miller and a dozen other legitimate contenders at every event. Bolt hasn’t faced anything like that.

Yet they shared this important similarity: Often, the contests were over before they even began. Or, as Tom Weiskopf once said: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.”

At the worlds two years ago, Gatlin had Bolt beaten in the 100m but leaned in at the finish line a microsecond too early. Bolt passed him and won by .01. The American all but admitted he psyched himself out.

Speaking to the pressure of racing someone such as Bolt, the Scottish sports historian and former Olympic coach Tom McNab compared sprinting to running in a tunnel.

“And once you become aware of what’s happening outside your tunnel, you’re in trouble,” he said.

In boxing, Ali wasn’t necessarily unbeatable, but he was incomparable as both a sharp-witted showman and an athlete with a social conscience, using his platform to preach tolerance and oppose war.

Bolt hasn’t sought that sort of impact, at least not yet, but it’s hard to overstate the mark he made on his troubled sport and, thus, the Olympics, which have long featured athletics as the must-see event of the final two weeks.

Over years and decades, the showcase sport of the Olympics has devolved into a sordid litany of doping scandals. The latest concerns widespread corruption and cheating in Russia, and heading into Rio, it undermined not only the sport and its managers, but the Olympics and their leaders’ willingness to deal with it.

But when Bolt sauntered onto the track, flashed a peace sign and blew a kiss to the crowd, all was forgotten. Not just for the 9, or 19, seconds while he was running, but for the entire evening and beyond. He made track, and thus, the Olympics, eminently watchable.

He’ll do it one more time on a smaller stage – track’s world championships – but a stage with plenty of symbolic meaning.

When he headed to London for the Olympics in 2012, Bolt held all the records, but was portrayed as vulnerable, following the false start, a long list of nagging injuries and his losses to Blake.

By the time he left, he had pretty much anointed himself as the greatest. Four years later, he said that was precisely his goal: “To be among Ali and Pele,” he said.

He’s on that list, but when the lights go out after the relays Aug. 11 – 10 days before his 31st birthday – it will be time to say goodbye.

“Once he’s gone,” McNab says, “there’s no major personality that would make any significant impact at the world level.”

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MORE: Bolt barely wins last race before worlds

Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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