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'Together, Bob and I Managed Everything'

Aug 4, 2012  - Craig Lord

When Michael Phelps finished his last warm-up, he looked up from the water, peered through his goggles at coach Bob Bowman and said: I have looked up to Michael Jordan all my life. He became the best basketball player there ever was. I've been able to become the best swimmer of all-time, we got here together. Thank you."

After winning the 18th gold medal of his career and 22nd medal over all in the Olympic pool, with medley relay teammates Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen and Nathan Adrian, Phelps revealed: "He [Bowman] said 'that's not fair'. I could hide my tears behind my goggles but yours are streaming down your face, I said."

Added the swimmer about to leave the water for good: "I owe him so much. I love him to death and I'm thankful to have had someone who cares so much for me and who put up with all my crap, I've been giving him for 15 years. I can't thank him enough."

Phelps was asked why walk away when you can still be the best. "I told myself I never wanted to swim when I got to 30 - no offence to people who are 30 in swimming!" said Phelps. "I've been able to do everything I wanted. I put my mind to different goals and was able to achieve them. Together, Bob (Bowman) and I managed everything. If you can say that, there's no need to keep going; time to move on, do other things."

He added: "There are other things I want to do in life and I'm not sure staring at a black line 4 hours a day is one of them." 

The trophy presented to him on the poolside by president of FINA, Dr Julio Maglione had a more fitting tribute to the man than the announcer was prepared to tell the crowd. "The most decorated, blah, blah, blah …", is what came out of the speakers. Something more profound and simple is inscribed on the silver trophy by FINA:

  • To Michael Phelps
  • The greatest Olympic athlete of all time
  • From FINA
  • August 4 2012

"Its kind of weird looking at this and seeing 'greatest Olympian of all-time'," said Phelps. Asked to sum up his career, he replied: "I did it. That's pretty much all I can say. Through the ups and downs, through my career, I've still been able to do everything I've ever wanted to accomplish. I've been able to do things that nobody else has ever done."

He would write his memories down in his journal, probably on a plane because "its easy to put your headphones on and let your mind take off … The memories that I've had from this week will never go away. Soon enough they'll be on a piece of paper, in my journal, and I'll have them written forever."

How did he feel as he walked away from the sport that had dominated his life, from the success that filled his days? "It's tough to put into words right now. I did everything I wanted to and finished how I wanted to. If I can say that about my career that's all that matters - and I've been able to have the help from these guys," said Phelps with a nod to his relay mates sitting alongside him.

"We never lost that race [4x100m medley] in history. The ability to continue that streak is very important to us," said Phelps, whose simple message to his tea before they walked out together one last time was: "Let's go out and do it."

After the race, mum Debbie and his sisters were there as ever. "It was the same as always: my mum always cries and my sisters are smiling … my nieces looked kind of tired throughout the week. They [his family] have been supportive throughout my whole career."

He'd travelled the world to see a whole lot of people and pools on business, Now, he said, he would travel for fun. "I want to travel a bunch. I have been able to see so many places around the world, but I have never been able to experience them," he said. "Whether it is travelling through Europe, or going back to Australia, or South Africa - something Chad (Le Clos) and I were talking about. The competitive side of my career is over, but there are things I would like to do around the sport - working with my foundation is very important to me. Also my swim schools, teaching kids how to swim. I just want to have fun."

Phelps controlled his emotions well but no denying they were right there at the surface. "As soon as I stood on the podium I could feel the tears start coming," he said. "I tried to fight it, but then I decided to let go. I'm just going to take these last couple of moments, of memories of my career."

Hansen paid tribute to Phelps when he recalled what had sparked his own comeback and led to a revival that led to Olympic gold today. In Beijing in 2008, said Hansen, "Michael stood up and spoke to the whole the team and said 'I will never remember the 14 [gold] medals] but I will remember the card games, the jokes, the fun we have … it was really good for me to hear that, it was great for the rookies to hear it."

Asked to define the difference in Phelps between his last appearance in London and his last in Beijing, Hansen said: "In 2008 he was celebrating his 8th gold and here it was the last of his career. I don't think its hit him yet that he's done. I don't think that it will hit him until tomorrow and he realises he does not have to meet Bob for practice at a pool somewhere."

Hansen added: "He cried a lot after the eight gold medals because he broke a record he was chasing. Here, the way this crowd got behind him and was so appreciative meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to all of us. Every athlete on the blocks, the london crowd got behind us and for me this was by far the best Olympic experience because because of the way crowd got behind us." Hansen raced in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.

Phelps started out as a 15-year-old in Sydney, a boy finishing 5th among men over 200m butterfly. Long before that, Bowman had started to serve as a second dad to Phelps. When the coach hugged his aquatic son after the last hurrah, he whispered the three words that mean the most to anyone in the world: "I love you". They are 16 years into a partnership that began when a gangly kid came through the door at North Baltimore.

And turned into this:

Think America and swimming and the mind wanders from Baywatch and beach babes to California beaches and the birthplace of Olympic legend Mark Spitz, he of the moustache and seven gold medals in a sport for the landed and loaded with ocean views and time and talent to spare.

Think again. Try a working-class world away, Baltimore, Babe Ruth, broken home, burning ambition, back-breaking regime, a boy with a breathtaking talent. Think big. Think Michael Fred Phelps. Not seven laurels, but eight. No limits.

“You can’t put a limit on anything,” says the 23-year-old born in Towson, Maryland, and sporting a 6ft 7in armspan to outstretch his 6ft 5in height. He is a medal-winning machine who broke the mould.

“The more you dream, the farther you get.”

That was on the way to Beijing 2008, well into a journey that stretched back to a boy who couldn't sit still.

Born in the blue-collar milltown of Towson on the north-east coast of Maryland, where dreams are made on football fields not in water, the third and youngest child of Fred, a state trooper, and Debbie, a school administrator and teacher. He followed his sisters, Hilary and Whitney, to the North Baltimore Aquatics club headed by coach Bowman.

Whitney, whose own international career was cut short by a back injury, would later refer to swimming as a refuge from the domestic maelstrom. “I didn’t have to listen to people yelling or bickering and complaining. It was my escape,” said Whitney. “I took a lot of anger and beat it out, just me and the bottom of the pool”. 

Separated and reconciled before Michael was born, Fred and Debbie made the final split just as their seven-year-old son started to swim competitively.

Phelps had a stand-up row with Fred that created a months-long rift between father and son in 2003. Three days after Phelps’s high-school graduation ceremony, Fred visited the family’s townhouse in Baltimore and was told by the swimmer that his two complimentary tickets to the world championships in Barcelona would go to his mother and sister Hilary. Fred walked out and missed his son’s graduation party. They made up just before the Olympic Games in Athens.

It is mother and daughters that you see hanging over the rails accepting flowers from Phelps with each passing gold medal and world record.

The tears that have flowed at such times reflect what they know about what's gone into the making of it. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus'," recalled Debbie in Beijing. "I said, maybe he’s bored.” The teacher said that was impossible. “He’s not gifted,” came back the reply. “Your son will never be able to focus on anything."

Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was put on permanent medication but after two years, he had had enough. His mother, speaking at the hospitality lounge set up by Speedo - the sponsor who paid $1m to Phelps for his foundation when he matched Spitz’s seven gold medals - recalled: "Out of the blue, he said to me: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, Mom. My buddies don’t do it. I can do this on my own'."

On his own and in the pool, channelling his energy. When Phelps was 11, Bowman took Debbie aside and said: “By 2000, I look for him to be in the Olympic trials. By 2004, he makes the Olympics. By 2008, he’ll set world records. By 2012, the Olympics will be in New York and ...”. The swimmer’s mother was alarmed. Bowman had spotted something incredibly unusual in his pool, not only in terms of talent but outlook and specific intellect.

"Michael’s mind is like a clock. He can go into the 200 butterfly knowing he needs to do the first 50 in 24.6 to break the record and can put that time in his head and make his body do 24.6 exactly,” said his mother. He always did his swimming homework. “In high school, they’d send tapes from his international races. He’d say, ‘Mom I want to have dinner in front of the TV and watch tapes.’ We’d sit and he’d critique his races. He’d study the turns - ‘See, that’s where I lifted my head.’ I couldn’t even see what he was talking about. Over and over.”

Phelps was teased at school for having “sticky out ears” and a gawky expression. His mother recalled that her son “grew unevenly ... it was his ears, then he had very long arms, then he would catch up somewhere else...” For the first time, Phelps talked of the “deep hurt” he felt as a child being teased. His response was telling. He channelled his anger into swimming lessons and later training.

That ability to convert the negative into a positive is one of the secrets of Phelps’s success. “One of the things I call Michael is the motivation machine,” said Bowman. “Bad moods, good moods, he channels everything for gain. He’s motivated by success, he loves to swim fast and when he does that he goes back and trains better. He’s motivated by failure, by money, by people saying things about him ... just anything that comes along he turns into a reason to train harder, swim better. Channelling his energy is one of his greatest attributes.”

Bowman discovered hidden depths to Phelps early on. “He’s had the same mental approach since he was very young. There is nothing on his mind. He’s able to block everything out,” says the coach. A symptom perhaps of the need to bottle-up, to block out, both in what has been at times a troubled home and in the midst of a regime that many would faint away at the very thought of: Phelps covers more than 100km in water a week during the hardest times, seven days a week, including Christmas Day.

“We’re seven days, 365 days of the year here,” Phelps once said. “When you train at Christmas you kinda know that others aren’t doing that. It’s a good feeling to know you’ve done something they didn’t.” Bowman says he actually enjoys it. True? “Yes, I do enjoy it. I enjoy a challenge. The challenge of going to the Olympics and having tons of pressure on you is always out there but I find it exciting. I’ve got loads of goals to reach for and I’m willing to work for those.”

His ability to block out all distractions is one of several weapons in Phelps’s war chest. “Sure, I can disappear when I have to,” is all that he will say, comfortable with the notion of a place that only the great competitors can go. Swimming is like that: no sound of breath on your neck or footstep behind you, no roar of crowd, only a muffled hum and a relationship with the water. Phelps sings “the same song over and over and over again” a habit that he says is “the one thing that gets me through practice”.

“What Michael’s doing, it’s elevating everybody else’s performance here,” said backstroke great Aaron Peirsol in Beijing. “He’s not just winning but destroying everything. It’s awesome to watch."

Phelps' armoury has been like no other in history: a world-class act on all four strokes and from 100 to 400m in distance, he has set 33 world records and won titles on freestyle, butterfly and medley. 

Asked what made Phelps so good, Bowman said: "Honestly, what makes him so good is his mind. So much has been made of his build and the training he's done - and those things are certainly party of it. What makes him the best is his ability to focus under the maximum pressure and get the most out of his body. He gets the maximum performance when the stakes are at the highest."

Not all targets have been met along the way but loss has long been turned to fodder for a brighter moment, Phelps’s ability to turn any situation into fuel legendary. Bowman's hand is behind every good arrow: he was the Machieavellian coach who slyly trod on the 12-year-old's goggles to teach him that he could race without them; he is the man who asked the bus driver to make sure he came to the pool late after competition so that the hotel kitchen would have closed by the time Phelps got back to eat; he would have him race his own racers and then the relays in every age group at youth meets, seven or eight races in a session until the boy could take no more.

"I wanted him to know he could function without dinner; wanted him to race till he dropped; if those situations ever came up when it mattered, he would handle it," said Bowman. “I just think that I wanted him to be prepared for any situation that came up,” says the coach. “I think those are the lessons we worked on early on and that included the training as well. It was expecting the best possible result when he's in the worst possible situation. 

When I've completely exhausted him on something then I'll say, Ok, now let's time 'this' - see what you can do. And it's always approached form the standpoint 'let's see what you can do', not "you have to do this'. He's been conditioned over a long period of time to expect he can do something really well and know he's not in the most favourable conditions. 

And all the while, such measures, critically, had the support of Debbie Phelps, mum and teacher. What contribution had she made? “Wow!” Bowman is not afraid of silence. He thinks long and hard before asserting: “I think the greatest contribution that Debbie has given Michael is the same thing all great mothers give their children: a belief that they can achieve anything they set their mind too.

“He got it from both sides," said Bowman. "There was me here saying 'if you do this, this, this and this, this will happen’, and he would go home at night and she would say 'well, if Bob says that's a good idea, yeah, I'm sure you can do it! There was never a moment of reticence, or, you know, 'maybe you should just tone this down, swim for fun, not worry about it'. She was always willing to go to the next level as he improved and I think that he was really buoyed by that faith. It's fantastic.”

Phelps arrived at Bowman's club and moved up to the head coach early at 11 because he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and didn't know where to put his energy. A primary school teacher told his mother he would never amount to anything because he was unable to focus. Phelps took himself off medication because he hated how it made him feel.

"He was a very energetic little guy, always all over the place, 'Why are we doing this? When are we doing this? What are we doing next?'," his mother Debbie said. "Naughty isn't a word that I would use, he was playful, inventive. Definitely athletics channelled a lot of that energy."

Phelps describes himself in his autobiography as a "pool rat, running around, sneaking up behind people, stealing their snacks and goggles, tapping them on the shoulder and running away and just causing general havoc".

At the end of one hard session when Phelps was 12, Bowman asked if he was tired. "I don't get tired," came the reply. Bowman made it his mission to prove him wrong. But this was no blunt stick. Bowman, a music scholar, composed the greatest aquatic symphony there has ever been by teaching his pupil "process - one note after another, the movement only done when all the notes are in place".

Says Bowman: “I think that probably the thing that maybe I'm most proud of is that he has such a thorough understanding of the process of success. What it will take to build a foundation, versus swim a good 200 ‘fly ... it’s the same process but he has such a great appreciation of setting a goal, figuring out the steps it will take to get there, coming up with a plan and sticking to it whether things are easy or hard."

Bowman described the last day of their sporting partnership last night as cathartic but there will be no parting of the waves, Bowman and Phelps working together on the swim school and foundation that bears the name of the greatest. 

For Bowman, he is looking forward to a different relationship with his charge. “A perfect example is that he's a huge fan of the Baltimore Ravens, as am I. This next year we're going in with a couple of friends of ours and we're going to buy a suite at the stadium for the next three years. So every Sunday I'll see him at a ball game. That's the kind of thing I'd really like to have. Now If I see him at a ball game, I think he's thinking whether I'm thinking about whether he's thinking about training or not.”

At North Baltimore Aquatic Club, more than 2,000 kids are taught to swim per session there and many go through the ranks, including a Stroke Clinic focus on technique, to the same swim training programme that Phelps set out in as a fighter-of-a-7-year-old already keen to punch above his weight. “Part of the thing we tell people all the time is: there won't be another Michael Phelps,” says Bowman. “That's not your child. He can be the next Johnny, or whatever he can be. We don't curse people with that expectation.”

That said, there is no limit placed on potential and aspiration. “I guarantee you that every eight-year-old in our programme thinks they're going to be on that wall [of honour]. And probably one of them will… but they all have that belief.” Just like Michael.