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Beijing

A 13-year-old Michael Phelps was acting up after practice one day - squirting the girls with water bottles, splashing people, generally playing the goat. Bob Bowman, head coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, was unimpressed and called Phelps over to reprimand him.

"You shouldn't even have the energy to clown around," said Bowman, miffed that his session hadn't worked as intended. "That was the hardest practice we've ever done. Why aren't you tired?"

"I don't get tired," replied Phelps.

At that moment Bowman realised he had something special on his hands, and if he was going to unlock this kid's full potential he was going to have to become a much better coach. Trying to tire out Phelps would become his mission.

Phelps and Bowman

Bowman had first noticed the gangly individual with a huge talent a couple years before. Phelps was swimming with guys four years older than him and would start each session at the back of the chain that goes up and down the lanes. By the end of practice Phelps, who has now won 14 Olympic gold medals at the age of 23, would be leading the chain.

Even then Bowman was kept up at night half excited about what he and Phelps might achieve together, and half worried he lacked the experience to fully exploit this prodigy's gifts. Bowman, at this point, had only been coaching seriously for five years.

He need not have worried. Twelve years after their first meeting, Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever and possibly the greatest Olympian of all time. Bowman remains his teacher and most trusted advisor.

I met the "Baltimore Bullet's" mentor at a talk he was giving on Wednesday. Titled "The Making of a Champion", Bowman's presentation gave a remarkable insight into the gifts that set Phelps apart and what they do to hone those attributes so he can so utterly dominate his sport.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that the softly-spoken Bowman believes Phelps is "the greatest athlete in the world".

It might, however, surprise you to learn that Phelps would finish his final pre-Games practice sessions with three lots of 100m butterfly, each at 51.6 seconds (Phelps has an uncanny ability to swim to targets). This time would have earned him fifth place in the Olympic final (which he won by a fingernail). But he would do these 51.6s without a dive.

The incredible is a regular occurrence around Phelps. Bowman's job is to keep pushing the boundaries back; Phelps' talent is to keep reaching them.

"Michael is great at setting himself tough but attainable goals," said Bowman, who captained his university swimming team before moving into coaching in the early 1990s.

"Right from the beginning we have sat down at the start of a season and written down his target times. I remember the first year we did it he went to a meet six months later and swam those exact times. I had never seen anything like it but he's been doing it ever since."

In those early years Bowman constantly tried to find new ways to challenge Phelps. He would bring race pressure into practices by setting challenges Phelps would have to meet to end the session.

He would mix up Phelps' schedule in galas to force him to cope with physical and mental fatigue. Much has been made of the American's ability to swim 17 races in nine days at the Water Cube, but as a teenager he was swimming 21 races in three days at national events.

At one big US competition Phelps, who keeps his goggles on his forehead between races, went to the blocks without them. Bowman watched him doing it but said nothing - he wanted to see how Phelps would cope. He coped fine and won, just as he would years later when his goggles filled with water during the 200m butterfly final in Beijing - a race he won in world record time.

Later on, Bowman would resort to tricks like telling the driver to pick them up late before a race so Phelps would be shaken from his comfort zone. He pulled that stunt at the Athens Olympics. It didn't work, though. Phelps won that race too.

For all his enormous physical advantages as a swimmer (and there are many), what really makes Phelps special is his ability to shut out all distractions and focus on what needs to be done.

Just as a golfer has a pre-shot routine, Phelps has his pre-race ritual. The headphones go on, the rap music is turned up, he walks to his block, takes off his headphones, flaps his arms three times, steps onto the block and he's off. He's been doing the same thing since he was 11.

Just before the most dramatic of his finals in Beijing, the 100m butterfly, Phelps appeared to be doing his routine directly in front of his main rival, Milo Cavic. The two protagonists were face-to-face beside their blocks. To Bowman it looked like Phelps was trying to stare out his opponent.

"I asked him about it afterwards and do you know what he told me? 'Bob, I didn't even notice he was there'," said Bowman.

That narrow victory over Cavic gave Phelps his seventh gold of the Games, tying Mark Spitz's iconic tally from Munich. The record would be all his a day later.

After his speech, Bowman told me Phelps, who broke a bone in his wrist at the end of 2007 but never missed a beat in training, is not only stronger physically than his rivals, he is stronger mentally.

"Michael deals with pressure and expectation better than anybody else I have ever met," he said. "The greater the pressure, the faster he swims.

"He also has a knack of knowing exactly how much emotional energy to use for any given race. So for a prelim it's not much, but for a final it's everything."

They say the same thing about Tiger Woods. I mentioned this to Rick Dudley, the boss of his management company Octagon.

"There are many parallels between them," he said. "Michael has transcended his sport. He's even transcended the Olympics. There aren't many people who have done that - Tiger and golf is one - it's a remarkable achievement. He was very marketable before the Games so his value has sky-rocketed now."

So for Phelps, who earned a $1m bonus from his main sponsor Speedo for equalling Spitz's record, the future is rosy in and out of the pool.

He has already confirmed his intention to go to London 2012 and add to his tally - the record for total Olympic medals, Larissa Latynina's 18, will be his for the taking - but before that he will move with Bowman from their University of Michigan base back to where it all started, North Baltimore.

There Bowman will continue to find ways to stretch his pupil, so expect a lot more backstroke, a bit more breaststroke and a greater focus on the sprint events. Forget the open water race, though. Phelps hates distance races and recently clocked a two hours 36 minutes for 10K. (Dutchman Maarten van der Weijden won Olympic gold on Thursday in 1 hour 51 min 51.6 sec).

So that is the secret to beating him, you have to get him out of the pool and into a lake where he can't keep shovelling fried egg and cheese sandwiches into his face for fuel. Anywhere else and you're toast.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


Comments

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  • 1. At 2:58pm on 21 Aug 2008, Master of Nothing wrote:

    He is the GREATEST swimmer, although i feel Bolt's feat is bigger

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  • 2. At 3:11pm on 21 Aug 2008, cleanincredible wrote:

    Gems Value is Enhanced after Polish and
    Taken to Knowledgeable Jeweller.
    There are More Phelps in Sports World
    yet to be Recognized.

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  • 3. At 3:34pm on 21 Aug 2008, Mike wrote:

    I don't personally believe he is the greatest Olympian, because it's seemingly easy for him. He might be the most talented, successful, dominating Olympian, but i think the greats are people who've struggled against all odds to succeed. Redgrave for example, diabetes and colitis, and still goes on to win a Gold in Sydney, at what age i can't remember, but it was around the 40's wasn't it?

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  • 4. At 3:34pm on 21 Aug 2008, davestory wrote:

    Dear Merv_49,

    Although you feel that Bolt's feat is bigger, I can assure you that out of Phelps and Bolt, their feat is in fact the same size - size 14.

    Regards,
    A. Pedant (appropriate foot related name)

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  • 5. At 4:20pm on 21 Aug 2008, googlelee wrote:

    Definitely on par with Spitz - sure Spitz would have won bigtime @ '76 Olympics as well had it not been for all those anti Semite 'life threats'

    But have to agree with some of the other bloggers that Lighting BOLT is The Man! of Beijing 2008.

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  • 6. At 4:40pm on 21 Aug 2008, Makelele6 wrote:

    Bolt has done well in Beijing and will always be remembered but Phelps is the greatest Olympian and also has dominated his events for many years now!
    From Before the Athens olympics till Now Phelps has be amazing but Bolt has only done really well this year. It will be a true test to Bolt if he can carry this on in the World Champs and also the next Olympics.
    Redgrave has done very well but his event relies on 3 other people to win medals whereas Phelps and Bolt did it all by themselves.
    Phelps is a true sportsman wheras Bolt seems to like showing off and i would not like to think Bolt was the star performer of Beijing acting like a fool.

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  • 7. At 4:46pm on 21 Aug 2008, ROBDSWIM wrote:

    Great article! Phelps is the greatest!!!

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  • 8. At 5:30pm on 21 Aug 2008, jasonvivi wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 9. At 6:46pm on 21 Aug 2008, Ranbir wrote:

    Not the greatest Olympian. Greatest swimmer. Greatest land mammal on water.

    Greatest Olympian, would have to achieve in a variety of events. I know he swims well once, do I need to find out about him in several others? Does any other event allow someone to win as many medals as Phelps as done? The team ones to include have me iffy to take as well.

    But other than that, mad props to The Phelps. He's a brilliant freak of swimming nature and something to admire. Same as how Bolt is a freak of sprinting nature.

    I pip Bolt, however, for the manner in which he won, which was pure domination. Several tournaments down the line, we will remember Bolt's 100m and 200m run specifically. For Phelps? I've already forgotten how he won those 8 medals. I just know that he did.

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  • 10. At 7:23pm on 21 Aug 2008, flakeyfoont wrote:

    Hi Hiddenranbir

    Asain Bolt domitated his events not only because he's a fantastic athlete, but also because his opponents weren't very good.

    You 'just' needed a 9.89 to get a silver medal in the 100m, which is by no means a great result in 2008.

    Michael Phelps's opponents, on the contrary, were all super fast.

    He raced against the fastest swimmers ever, that's why his victories are more remarkable than those of Bolt.







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  • 11. At 7:52pm on 21 Aug 2008, writehaseeb wrote:

    2 weeks ago nobody was convinced that Phelps will ever win 7 not alone 8 !!!
    He is a great great swimmer no doubt.

    But the way BOLT starts his races, is like telling other guys you are racing for 2nd place and under, and as soon as the race kicks off he is like SEE YOU GUYS !!! lol

    If he repeats this kind of performance 4 years from now, that will be something special !!!

    Looking forward for Phelps and Bolt in 2012, both have ample time for even 2016 !!!

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  • 12. At 07:47am on 22 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    Hello all, thanks for the contributions.

    I see we all pretty much agree that these Games will be remembered for two people - MP and Bolt - and which of those you think achieved more kind of depends on your view on the athletics v swimming debate.

    Fair enough. I'm leaning towards Bolt for these Games but MP gets it overall because he's been at the top for 5-6 years. If Bolt can come back and do it again (or even better something slightly different.....the other "Superman" record, p'haps?) in London I'd have to reappraise their Olympic legend status.......but then MP could come back in 2012 and when a different set of races, which you'd have to salute.

    Anyway, thanks for reading.

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  • 13. At 07:48am on 22 Aug 2008, teresalhy wrote:

    Come on !!! Phelps !

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  • 14. At 08:57am on 22 Aug 2008, dunnot wrote:

    HE HAS NOT YET WON A GOLD MEDAL ON THE MOST IMPORTANT DISTANCE THE 100 M FREESTYLE.

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  • 15. At 1:09pm on 22 Aug 2008, ElmerT wrote:

    Both deserves to be applauded...

    I was actually wishing that MP would not take that 8 golds but he did and congrats... anyway, I saw how he won his 7th gold and it was like WTF... he definitely knows how to win... he even propelled himself to win as compared to Cavic who just glided... I guess he is really crying now. =)

    As for Bolt... I really love how he played with the camera especially before the game... haha... that would really taunt the US team... When I saw him run that 100m, it was like OMG... he really did it with style.... and for the 200m... WTF... he proved everyone wrong by breaking the WR.

    For the Beijing Olympics... My bet is Bolt as he did it in STYLE... =)

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  • 16. At 5:26pm on 24 Aug 2008, aw2859 wrote:

    Labeling Phelps as the best Olympian of all time does not take opportunity into consideration. An Olympic swimmer has the opportunity to compete in more events than an Olympic long jumper, a volleyball player, or a weightlifter. For other Olympians, there are only a few, or maybe even only one opportunity for a gold medal, and to win 14 gold medals would take 56 years, with one medal every 4 years.

    Phelps may be the best swimmer of all time, or the most decorated Olympian, but it is impossible to label one as "the best Olympian."

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  • 17. At 7:55pm on 26 Aug 2008, FawltyBasil wrote:

    What an excellent article and I fully agree with Matt Slater's summary. I must confess being an ex-swimmer and more easily able to empathize with the scale of MP's achievement that I would go for him overall for his performances not just here but in Athens. I fully agree that as one-offs Bolt's performances are unsurpassable. To put it in perspective I think that if Bolt had won the 400m as well in a world record he would probably pip Phelps. Its just such a shame that one of them will not win 'Overseas Sports Personality of the year' when either fully deserve to (though wielding a racket or golf club would be an undoubted asset in that particular contest!)

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