Great Britain's Greg Searle said his career had finished with "a happy ending, albeit not the happy ending we wanted" after claiming Olympic bronze as part of the men's eight.
The British crew led world champions Germany in the Olympic final before being overhauled in the last 500m.
They eventually dropped behind Canada to finish third.
The 40-year-old now has three Olympic medals, including gold in Barcelona 1992 and a bronze in Atlanta 1996.
Searle, who spent a decade away from the sport, fell short of a perfect ending to his career with another gold, but was still happy with the team's efforts.
He said: "I think we know we gave it everything we had. We wanted to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that.
"I'm proud of the work we've done, to be where we were. To hit the front at the right time was the plan, we just couldn't hold on."
Born in Ashford, Middlesex, Searle found rowing after watching his brother Jonny win at Henley Royal Regatta. He took up the sport at school and went on to win two junior World Championship medals in 1989 and 1990.
That performance saw him chosen for the senior team where he rowed alongside Jonny in the men's eight at the World Championships, finishing fourth.
But it was in 1992, when he teamed up with his brother as well as cox Garry Herbert in the coxed pairs, that Searle nailed his place in history.
The brothers produced the race of their life, chasing down the two-time Olympic champions Carmine and Giuseppe Abbagnale to take a thrilling Olympic victory on the line in Barcelona.
"I'm gutted for my friend Greg because they went out hard and tried to win gold," Herbert told BBC Sport. "It was a brave thing and I've got massive respect for what they've done.
"It will be difficult for him to come to terms with, because he came back to win gold, but those that are close to him will remind him of where he's been and what he's done.
"The lure was so big for him to come out of retirement but it will be easier to deal with it because he has a gold medal."
Searle won his first World Championship gold alongside his brother in 1993 and added an Olympic bronze to his collection when he competed in the coxless four in Atlanta.
But, aged 28 at the time, he suffered the ultimate agony when he and Ed Coode dropped from first to fourth in a fast and furious finish at the 2000 Sydney Games. Retirement soon followed.
He took up sailing, competing in the America's Cup Challenger Series, had two children and started a company with Olympic swimming champion Adrian Moorehouse. But the lure of the water proved too much and he found himself discussing a return with his wife.
"The business focused on helping companies achieve their dreams and working to five-year plans," said Searle, who is twice the age of his crewmate Constantine Louloudis.
"As the London Olympics approached, I soon realised I was not practising what I was preaching.
"I was at the airport having commentated on the 2009 World Championship and my flight was delayed by 24 hours. That hit the pause button on my life and I realised I wanted to be an athlete and part of a team. So I flew home and got the rowing machine out the next day."
Over the next three years, Searle built up his fitness and did enough to be selected in the men's eight. Ultimately, Searle came back targeting gold, but a bronze medal, 20 years after his first Olympic medal, is no mean feat.
Herbert put it best when he said: "Once it has sunk in, I'm sure he will say to himself: 'I came out of my comfort zone, put my reputation on the line and I won a medal. I can come out with my head held high'."