AP honors Phelps as year’s top male athlete

Now that he’s away from the pool, Michael Phelps can reflect — really reflect — on what he accomplished.

Pretty amazing stuff.

“It’s kind of nuts to think about everything I’ve gone through,” Phelps said. “I’ve finally had time to myself, to sit back and say, ‘... that really happened?’ It’s kind of shocking at times.”

Not that his career needed a capper, but Phelps added one more honor to his list of accomplishments Thursday: The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

Phelps edged LeBron James to win the award for the second time, not only a fitting payoff for another brilliant Olympics (four gold medals and two silvers in swimming at the London Games) but recognition for one of the greatest careers in any sport.

Phelps finished with 40 votes in balloting by U.S. editors and broadcasters; James was next with 37. Track star Usain Bolt, who won three gold medals in London, was third with 23.

Carl Lewis is the only other Olympic-related star to be named Male Athlete of the Year more than once, taking the award for his track and field exploits in 1983 and ’84. The only men honored more than twice are golf’s Tiger Woods and cyclist Lance Armstrong (four times each), and basketball’s Michael Jordan (three times).

“Obviously it’s a big accomplishment,” Phelps said. “There’s so many amazing male athletes all over the world and all over our country. To be able to win this is something that just sort of tops off my career.”

Phelps retired at age 27 as soon as he finished his final race in London, having won more gold medals (18) and overall medals (22) than any other Olympian.

“That’s what I wanted to do,” Phelps said. “Now that it’s over, it’s something I can look back on and say, ‘That was a pretty amazing ride.’ ”

The current ride isn’t so bad. Set for life, he has turned his competitive drive to golf, working on his game with renowned coach Hank Haney as part of a television series on the Golf Channel. After being informed of winning the AP award, Phelps called in from the famed El Dorado Golf & Beach Club in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he was heading out with Haney to play a few more holes before nightfall.

“I can’t really complain,” Phelps quipped.

Certainly he has no complaints about his swimming career, which helped turn a sport that most Americans only paid attention to every four years into more of a mainstream pursuit.

More kids took up swimming. More advertisers jumped on board. More viewers tuned in.

While swimming is unlikely to ever match the appeal of football or baseball, it has carved a niche for itself among all the other athletic options in the United States — largely due to Phelps’ accomplishments and aw-shucks appeal.

Phelps already had won the AP award in 2008 after his eight gold medals in Beijing, which broke Mark Spitz’s record. He got it again with a performance that didn’t quite match up to the Great Haul of China but was amazing in its own right.