By Kevin Van Valkenburg
August 16, 2008
He is always awake long before it wails, usually on the early side of 5 a.m. "I bounce out of bed," he says.
Bowman always sets the alarm, though. And he always turns it off. He is meticulous that way, disciplined and regimented. It is the first item on his daily mental checklist. He embraces the morning as passionately as his prodigy, swimmer Michael Phelps, loathes it.
"That's one of the reasons I'm diametrically opposed to Michael," the 43-year-old Bowman says. "Michael is a night owl; I am an early-morning person. It drives him crazy."
If you want to understand why Phelps is about to wrap up the most phenomenal Olympic Games in history tonight, and you want insight into how he earned the right to call himself the greatest swimmer of all time, Bowman is the best place to start.
He's the maestro behind all of this, the man with wire-rimmed glasses and graying hair that NBC often flashes to after Phelps' race. He's the coach who put together Phelps' ambitious program and drove him like a drill sergeant, but also pushed and prodded him to greatness. Bowman is such an important, influential voice in Phelps' life - and has been since he was 11 years old - that when Bowman decided to take a job at the University of Michigan, Phelps followed.
In the next few months, Bowman will return to Baltimore to take over as the CEO of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the place where his and Phelps' paths first crossed. Once again, Phelps will follow.
"Training with Bob is the smartest thing I've ever done," Phelps says. "I'm not going to swim for anyone else."
Their 12-year relationship, one of the longest partnerships in swimming, is as loyal as it is complex. They don't just inhabit different worlds outside the pool; its different solar systems.
Bowman studied classical music composition and swam at Florida State, but ultimately majored in child psychology. His office is filled with biographies of great coaches like Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight, John Wooden and Bill Walsh. Ask him what piece of classical music best describes him, and he cites Prokofiev's 3rd Piano concerto.
"Prokofiev is a lot like me," Bowman says. "It has structure that is very clearly defined. It has a melodic element, it has an element of tone in it, and it has a percussion element. It also has what they would call a sardonic or sarcastic element."
Phelps likes hip-hop, poker and video games.
"I remember [at age 11] seeing him and thinking he was the meanest guy I've ever seen," Phelps says. "I told myself, 'There is no way I'm swimming for him.' Sure enough, 12 years later, we're still doing the same thing."
Their blowups are the stuff of legend in the swimming world. Some days they scream at one another, intentionally picking fights. Other days, they'll laugh together and trade warm memories of Baltimore.
"Bob rides Michael pretty hard sometimes," says Eddie Reese, the men's head coach for USA Swimming. "But it's all in Michael's best interest. Maybe it's not what's best for him in that moment, but Bob can see down the line. If you've got children and you want to take good care of them, it doesn't mean you let them do everything they want to do. You've got to put your foot down sometimes."
When Phelps won his first gold medal of the week, setting a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, he cried on the medal stand, thinking about how difficult the last year had been for him after breaking a small bone in his wrist. When Bowman saw tears in Phelps eyes, he started to cry, too.
"Doesn't usually happen to me," Bowman says.
Bowman, who grew up in Columbia, S.C, and is single, spends Thanksgiving each year at the Phelps family dinner table. He can vividly remember letting Phelps out of swimming practice 15 minutes early one day so that Phelps could get dressed up to attend his first middle school dance.
"First he came out and asked me to tie his tie," Bowman says. "Then he came out with his shirt buttoned one off the whole way so I had to re-button it."
Phelps' parents, Debbie and Fred, divorced when he was 9 years old, right about the time Bowman came into his life, and Phelps has not had much of a relationship with his father in recent years. Fred Phelps did not travel to China this week, and the two rarely speak. Bowman, though, has never been comfortable with the suggestion that he's served as a surrogate father to Phelps.
"Frankly, we have a more complicated relationship," Bowman says. "We're business partners, we are family in a definite way, and we have to interact with each other on a lot of different levels. So it's very complicated."
By this stage, the two men have almost a symbiotic relationship when it comes to the pool. Bowman can nod or raise his eyebrows and Phelps will know exactly what he's thinking. They've been around the world together, shared thousands of meals together and taken on all comers. There are so many pages in their mental scrapbooks, including hundreds from this week, but there is one from years ago that Bowman treasures the most.
"I have a picture of Michael and I from Indianapolis that was taken just minutes after he made the Olympic team the first time [at age 15]," Bowman says. "And if you could see the look on his face, both of us really, it's so purely happy. I keep that on my desk and every time I'm discouraged for frustrated, I just look at that picture and it makes me happy."
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