- 21 Aug 08, 12:20 PM
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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