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An Epic Journey Hurtles Towards Its End

Aug 2, 2012  - Craig Lord

When Michael Phelps had done tonight, there was no great show of water pounding, no fist pumping, no hopping on lane ropes. He was serene, calm, quiet, contemplative. He will remember this always, the cameras collecting his smile and teary eyes for the archive that will outlive us all. 

Phelps was the model of a man soaking it all up. "Going into every call room, I said it's my last semi-final or my last prelim," Phelps said, reflecting on the business of the day. "We're kind of chalking up all the lasts of certain things."

On the podium he bit his lip lest it quiver too much. To endure what he has and still find what it takes to be at your best is the hallmark of the greatest of greats who looked more like he'd left his cloak of invincibility in the wash.

"To be able to win the gold medal and be the first to threepeat, it means something," said Phelps. "It's pretty special and something that I'm very happy for."

Cseh, who joked that he was the first human home in three races back in Beijing behind "The Alien", smiled once more when he said:  "Always chasing Mike and Ryan. It's really hard because those two swimmers are really good." So is Cseh. Excellent in fact, which makes the feats of Phelps (and Lochte) all the more extraordinary.

Even now, with two days left in this swimming epic, Phelps is looking at where he might have tweaked a button for betterment: "I wanted to push the first 100 as much as I could just to kind of see what would happen. Somebody told me with like 25 to go I was under world-record pace, so it was kind of frustrating I fell a little short," he said.

No-one noticed, Michael. We did notice you go a 50.86 in the 100 'fly semi and appear to do what you've done so often: get better as the day, the meet, goes on.

"He does that better than anyone, doing the second event after the first really hard one," said coach Bob Bowman.

Said his old sparring partner Milorad Cavic, of Serbia: "Phelps is out of our league. It's not fair that I'm talking for everybody, but I'm expecting something special tomorrow. I think he's going to go 50.5."

Phelps paid his own plaudits to the man who has meant the most across a range of events and challenges. "Ryan has probably been one of the toughest competitors I've swam against, all-around competitors," he said. "We're seeing a lot more competitors coming up."

By the time they are up there on the edge of the outer orbit where Michael Phelps found a place beside the second star on the right, he will be gone. Inspiration, beyond love the greatest of gifts, will remain. That is the legacy of Michael Phelps, to the tune of Bob Bowman, the maestro blessed with being sent the right notes from time while understanding very clearly what he had t do with them to create the biggest noise in Olympic history.

That is the legacy of Michael Phelps, to the tune of Bob Bowman, the maestro blessed with being sent the right notes from time - and then understanding very clearly what he had to do with them to create the biggest noise in Olympic history.

Phelps, says Bowman, is an anomaly, an athlete who can produce speed even when carrying the weight of Bowman’s baby grand on his back.

“I think he overcomes it psychologically. That's a big part of the equation,” says Bowman. “We've always approached meets from the standpoint that if we're gonna take the time out of our schedule to go to a meet we need to have some sort of meaningful performance there. It doesn't have to be everything that we're see at the Olympic trials but it should have components of those races. I think that's a big part of Michael's motivation. The races have to have some value other than the physiological demand that you can get at home in training.”

That motivation waned along the way comes as no surprise. A long journey from 11 to 27 on the road to excellence and back. Bowman expected a change in outlook the moment Beijing was done. 

“I remember that the [medley] relay won, Michael had the award ceremony and got the thing from FINA [swimmer of the meet], did a drug test and then we immediately went to the press centre and had the main press event, from there got into a golf cart in which they took us into the bowels of this NBC thing,” Bowman recalled. “The next thing we know we're in Dick Ebersol's office (former chairman of NBC Sports and the man who led the broadcasters Olympic broadcast rights bid), having some food and 30 minutes after that we were filming with Rowdy Gaines the critique of all the races on the same day.”

There was no let up. “Michael went on to do two or three others things and I was done that day. And he never stopped doing things I would say until November,” Bowman noted. “I remember for myself thinking just how drained I was. Thinking that it was such a shame that he's achieved this monumental thing and that he can't really enjoy it. 

“He had to go through this other stuff - there's a window of time in which those things have to be done - and I think that's the saddest part of the whole thing: he never really go to soak it up. I did, I got to sit back and think 'wow, that was really great'.  I don't know that he was ever in silence [to reflect] because everyone wanted a piece of him.”

In that sense, Phelps had stood up well, had he not? "Exactly. I think he did quite well," says Bowman.I think in hindsight if I could go back and do that all again, I would announce the day after Beijing that he would not be competing for a year and that he would start his preparations for the next Olympics in the fall of 2009 or something like that. I’d have just given him a year out, just to do things and relax and get his energy back. 

“The way it worked out things just got disjointed. He came back in March, really, and swam for those 2009 world championships, which he did quite well in.  But he just wasn't recovered. Psychologically and emotionally. He then took a little time after that but it wasn't that organised.”

Rome was, Bowman recalls, “a nightmare ... I was glad when it was over”. The shelf life of shiny suits ended when Bowman said his boy would not be back until the circus had left town.  “I was so upset when they said they were going to allow the full super suits that we didn't wear. Honestly, up until about our trials three weeks before Rome, we were contemplating having Michael just swim in a brief at the world championships. 

“Can you imagine: he wouldn't have made a final. I was saying ‘well you know he'll get 7th or 8th … but it was just crazy, he wouldn't have made the final.” The belly laugh is one that doubtless echoes throughout the swimming world, Phelps peerless now and for generations to come, perhaps.

What makes him so good? The pause is pregnant, cogs turn, focus sharpens before he adds: “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 for this protagonist in the lights those goose bumps that sweep through a crowd when stillness descends as the gladiators respond to the whistle-call and rise to their blocks for battle. When the pin drops, Phelps thrives. He is actually revelling in it, right?

“Exactly… I would say yes. I think he's revelling in it,” says Bowman. What is he like behind the scenes beforehand: still, quiet? “Yes, he goes absolutely quiet. Our communication will be minimal after he warms up. Usually before the warm up, he’ll be fairly talkative and fairly relaxed but after he gets through that process, he goes quiet.”

Not all targets are met but loss has long been turned to fodder to a brighter day, Phelps’s ability to turn any situation into fuel legendary, natural and honed. Behind every good arrow, the hand of Bowman, who trod on goggles, made his pupil so late for dinner that there was none.

“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. Even today, sometimes I will try to arrange things so that I expect 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. I think that separates him from the vast amount of swimmers.  Michael can jump into crowded warm ups, like in Rome, which was a nightmare but it went quite well. Whereas I visibly saw people on our team visibly and immediately have some mental problems as soon as they saw that situation.  I think that in terms of what he need to be successful he feels he can be successful in nearly every situation because of some of the things we've done a long the way.”

Is there a childlike quality to Phelps’s response to challenge and had that been there from boy to man? “Absolutely. No question,” says Bowman, Beijing the work of 12 years as well. “I think back to when he was 12 years old, and every January we would go to a meet, it used to be in Atlanta [and this was 1997, a year after the Games had been held there]. Over three days, he would swim three events in prelims and three events in finals and then he would swim his age-group relay in the 13-14 group and then we'd have him swim the seminar relay right after that.” 

Beyond a characteristically impish chuckle, Bowman adds: “He would do that for three days - and look forward to it. I remember so distinctly one time the third night of the meet and he came up to me with tears in his eyes and said ‘I'm so tired' and we'd just say to him 'well, let's do just one more, I think you can do one more, just step up and try one more'. And he would go and try it and he would do well. Just learning to sort of fight through that in a positive way I think paid off for him down the road.”

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: 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.”

Behind the goggles, the singular focus, the voracious appetite, the ferocious competitor, who is Michael? 

“Michael is one of the kindest people I've ever met,” says Bowman without hesitation. “He can be so thoughtful and caring towards other people. I think that he's become more guarded because the way his life is and that's my biggest regret for him. While there have been so many opportunities and things have opened up for him, he really has lost his privacy to a great extent. Because of that he always gives a very guarded public persona.

“But if you really knew him, he's laughing all the time; when he's relaxed in a secure setting he's a great guy and very easy to talk to. He's interested in a lot of things. He's just pretty normal, which I know is an oxymoron when we discuss Michael - but he is.”

The swimmer’s loyalty and adherence to the lessons and tests set for him by Bowman has drawn some to conclude that he is a somewhat simple soul. A few minutes with him away from the lights is enough to confirm that he is actually a triple A-grade swim student, smart and street-wise.

“I promise you that he's incredibly intelligent,” says Bowman. “He doesn't like book work. He is probably the smartest person on the subject of swimming I have ever met - and I don't just mean intuitively. He studies the sport. And he knows what its going to take, what the competitors have done. He's got it.” He always had a clockwork-precision understanding of pace: in his early teens, Phelps would often set himself target times at junior meets and come within a couple of tenths of them.”

The innate and the conditioned have collided in Phelps to feed a passion for what he does. Hard to always find the line between nature and nurture but what did Bowman take most pride in when it comes to his contribution to moulding a medal-winning master of the waves?

“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,” says Bowman. “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. I definitely see that in him. And he has such a thorough understanding of that process. And I think that's something I've helped with.”

Will Saturday August 4 deliver catharsis? “Yes!” says Bowman through laughter. “I say that because I would like Michael and I to be able to enjoy each other's company without the complication of coach/swimmer relationship being there.”

Two of the most clear-cut examples of people who live for the day and look forward to tomorrow, rarely looking back, never resting on laurels, Bowman and Phelps will continue to work together, for starters through the eponymous swim school gone national and one day to go global. They also look forward to socialising without the line of master-pupil in between.

Says Bowman: “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.”

Bowman will take a year off deck after London 2012, travel and think. Then he will return to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where giant wall-of-honour image of Phelps and the likes of Teresa Andrews, Beth Botsford, Anita Nall and Katie Hoff, serve as inspiration for the next generation. Some 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.