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Next Note In The Soaring Phelps Symphony

Nov 20, 2009  - Craig Lord

The end of the decade is nigh, the end of the sad, shiny suits era is nigh and the end of the year is just around the corner. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the biggest moments of the decade, as well as the past year, and consider the people who shaped the sport of swimming. We start with the athlete of 2009 and the decade: Michael Phelps (USA) and the coach of the decade, Bob Bowman (USA).

The choice is simple enough: 14 Olympic gold medals in tow, 37 world records, 14 of them set in the LZR Racer that will be banned from January 1, 2010, and more success than anyone has ever had at world championships. In the heat of the circus in Rome, Phelps emerged as the male swimmer of the meet a touch ahead of teammate Ryan Lochte (USA): he claimed five gold medals, provided the eight record-drenched days with the most sensational moment of the championships - in a loaded 100m 'fly final with Milorad Cavic (SRB, and otherwise known as  from California) that produced two sub-50sec shiny-suit swims, the victor in 50% poly, the vanquished in 100% poly at a time when suits created unfair an unbalanced race conditions.

Phelps did what he did in 2009 after all that had gone before. Don Talbot, the former Aussie head coach, once said that the key to greatness is longevity. There are arguments to the contrary: hard to argue that Shane Gould is not one of the greatest women swimmers we have ever seen, if not the greatest, as an example. And that leads us to the obvious conclusion about Phelps - he is unique, in that he joined the elite club for folk of the calibre of Gould, Spitz, Matthes, Gross, Biondi, Popov, Egerszegi and so on, and then shot into outer orbit beyond them and the greatest of Olympic greats on many counts and across all sports. He had the shorter-term and the longer-term wow factor, as it turned out. 

A year after adding 8 gold medals for an Olympic tally of 14, retirement may have beckoned. Not for Phelps. He came back for more - and made it count, every stroke of the way. Bowman played a pivotal and masterful role. 

I had the privilege to sit down for a while in Berlin for a chat with the greatest swimmer ever known and Bob Bowman, composer and maestro of the soaring and thrilling Phelps Symphony that is yet to be completed.

Here is the first installment of our interview.

No secret that the 100m free is part of the journey to London 2012. Many can't see it. They're blinded by the shiny suit gap and the fact that you're 1.5sec and more off the pace  here on world cup tour. How are you feeling about the sprint quest?

MP: On the times I'm doing here, well, I've done some best times. I can't say I'm happy but I'm not unhappy.  I'm not in an awful place, I'm not in a great place. The 100 is a target and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes. 

BB: After January 1, the 100m freestyle, I would say, is probably going to be the most different race of all of them, given what's happened. Those last 20m are going to be critical. In those last 20m you are going to need to be there.  You are going to have to be on it at the finish. Michael's good at that. You are not going to be able just to let the suit carry you, to go out easier."

How, Michael, do you define defeat?

MP: I think it can be a number of different things. If I do a best time and get beaten, there's nothing else I can do at that point. I did what I was prepared for. I can look at defeat as a motivator, that is part of the biggest thing you can look at it as; after [Tom] Malchow [200m butterfly Olympic champion, 2000] defeated me at Pan Pacs [Pan Pacific Championships] in 2002, I didn't ever want to lose that race again. That's something that even today still sticks in my mind. So little things like that that will get you a little extra-motivated are important. You will always have that feeling after defeat - it's a much worse feeling than after a win. Defeat really sticks with you. I look at defeat as something that's always helping. It's taught me never to have that feeling again and If I'm not prepared when I have a defeat then I will make sure next time that I am prepared. 

Which of the very biggest of challenges you have faced really riled you?


  • The 2002 200m 'fly at Pan Pacs. I broke the world record in 2001 at worlds (world championships) and at world trials and at Pan Pacs Malchow touched me out
  • in 2003 the 100m 'fly when Ian Crocker beat me at worlds
  • the 200m free in 2004 [Athens, Olympic final]
  • the 100 'fly at 2005 worlds - that was the biggest embarrassment of my swimming career. I've never been handed a 'hit' like that in my entire life. When I looked up I saw 50-point and punched the air, then I realised it wasn't for me. That was embarrassing."

[No mention of the 200 free in Rome, for that race reflected suit technology more, perhaps, than any other he has raced: it was a final in which the champion, Paul Biedermann, improved 4sec in a season, something Phelps never managed in all the years from a 1:52 best in 2001 to a 1:42 in 2008.]

What is like to fall shy of what you set out to achieve?

MP: It's still a learning experience. If you don't accomplish something, you go back to the drawing board and you fix what you have to fix. You can really tell when I'm really upset. There are a few things I do when I'm happy after a race. If I'm happy I do it after every race. It could be taking my goggles off in a certain way or splashing the water ... when I'm not happy, I don't know... I know I'll have another swim. I put it behind me and I learn from what I did. As I said to the guys on the [USA] national youth team: everyone has a bad swim in their day but what it comes down to is how you continue after that and how you look back and learn from that swim. That's the only thing you can do with that swim. You're gonna have a ton of swims in your life ... so learn and move on. Just make sure you have the right swims at the right time." 

Did you get that early on - were you like that as a child?

"I have always had goals that i wanted to accomplish. When i was growing up I just kept going. There weren't any bumps in the road - it was just straight. The first time I got to a bump in the road it was like 'what do I do'? You learn from that ... you have people helping you along the way and helping you to go faster."

Are you a lucky man?

 MP: “If you want something, you put your mind to something, you go after it and you don’t give up until its accomplished. Obviously, I was born with talent. I was born with something and I fell in love with something: swimming. With anything you do, you put natural ability into it but the biggest thing is how much you want something. If you want something bad enough then no matter what it is, you'll work for it and get it. “

 BB: “I always like to think that success comes when preparation meets opportunity . Was he lucky to win the 100 'fly (by 0.01sec in Beijing)? Absolutely. But there were years that went into that, years of practicing ... ”. He makes a stabbing motion to replicate the fast-finish that kept the eight-gold-medal dream alive. "You make your own luck."

MP: “Yes. You make your own luck. You have to put the work in.”

The iPod is loaded with Young Jeezy and all that kind of stuff. Has Bob Bowman persuaded you to listen to some of his more refined tastes

MP: No ... well, country music is the only thing. 

Nothing classical? 

MP, broad grin and eyebrow raised: "No, no, not yet, not yet...".

BB: "No way. There's no Concierto de Aranjuez for him!

And no hip-hop for you?

BB: No!

People have said you're a bit of an automaton. But that's not the case is it?

MP: I remember Marianne Limpert [Camadian Olympic medley medal winner, 1996] swam with us for a while and she said to me 'I thought you were like the Duracell Bunny, someone wound you up and you just went'. I was like 'Marianne, as you can see, I'm not. I am my own person. I have my own goals and I rely on people to help me get to where I wanna be. Just doing what you're told ... for a certain amount of time that would work but then you learn a lot along the way and after a while it can't be like that."

BB: You can't do this if you don't have your own goals and know who you are 

MP: You have to experience things for yourself. All that's gone ... It's been my experience. 

What event are you most likely to keep for 2012?

MP: "My mom probably won''t let me give up the 200 'fly. Its kind of like a family event. My sisters both swam it and that ll be a race that I made my first Olympic team in that race, my first world record....a lot of heart and I won't let it go.

How do you see your world cup tour this November?

MP: "I know 100% that I'm not in the best shape not really in shape at all. I know that the biggest thing I have not had is consistency. There are days when I've woken up and have not felt like going so ... I won't go. If you're forcing yourself to go its not fun."

Are you more likely to quit if you force yourself to go training in this phase of your career?

MP: Yes. 

BB: Absolutely. 

So how do we interpret the current tour and what happens this side of 2010?

BB: Its not important that he's good in November. It's important that he's good next summer. We'll have him as ready as he can be right now but its very important he be ready in Shanghai [2011 world championships], and in fact more so in London 2012. That's all that matters."

More from and on Phelps and Bowman soon.

A feature on Phelps appears in The Times, London today.