Australia's greatest swimmer Ian Thorpe announced his retirement aged just 24 on Tuesday, passing up the chance to become the first man to win three gold medals at three Olympics.
The world and Olympic champion told a packed news conference broadcast live across Australia that he had decided to quit because swimming was no longer the most important thing in his life.
"It's emotional because I see my entire swimming career flashing before my eyes but at the same time I have this excitement about what I'm about to do," Thorpe said.
"I don't think I should be retiring, I think I'm far too young to retire, but it's a thing that we should be celebrating. I've had a great career," a relaxed Thorpe said.
Thorpe described his decision to quit as the toughest he had ever made but would not completely rule out the possibility of a comeback for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the event that was meant to crown his stellar career.
"I don't see myself competing again. I don't think it will happen," Thorpe said.
"I won't rule it out. I never rule anything out, but it's just not going to happen," he said.
Thorpe is one of the greatest swimmers of all time after winning 11 world titles, five Olympic gold medals and setting 13 individual long-course world records.
One more gold medal in Beijing, his third Olympics, would have seen him achieve a feat beyond even the great Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Alexander Popov.
Fellow Australian Dawn Fraser, one of just two female swimmers to win the same event at three Olympics, summed up the bittersweet reaction to his retirement, rating him the greatest freestyle swimmer yet disappointed his career was over.
"I was hoping he may have gone on to Beijing to do the three events in a row and I guess in a way I'm sad," Fraser told Fox Sports.
"But that's selfish of me because he's made that decision for himself, he doesn't want to put himself under any more pressure, and I say 'thank you very much for what you've done'," she said.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Thorpe as a remarkable swimmer and "a good bloke".
Shane Gould, who retired at just 16 after winning three gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, said she understood what Thorpe had gone through.
"It is a difficult thing. I had to make the same decision and it's hell," she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Thorpe said it would have been easier for him to keep swimming and compete in the world championships next March but was worried that swimming had become a "safety blanket".
He took up swimming at the age of five and became the youngest men's world champion in the sport's history when the then 15-year-old won the 400 metres freestyle in Perth in 1998.
"You can swim lap after lap staring at a black line and all of a sudden you look up and see what's around," he said.
Worn down by the constant grind of training, Thorpe took a year off after winning the 200 metres and 400m freestyle titles at the 2004 Athens Olympics but his comeback plans were thwarted by illness and waning motivation.
He began to question his continued involvement in the sport while training with Gould's partner Milt Nelms in Los Angeles this year. It was then he realised for the first time that swimming was not his main priority.
Thorpe said he had several opportunities open to him, with a career in television looming, but gave few other details.
"I haven't picked up a newspaper to look for a job, but if anyone's got any good ones for an ex-Olympic swimmer," Thorpe said.