By Kevin Van Valkenburg
August 3, 2008
His coach, Bob Bowman, was driving him home from the airport, and when he turned down Phelps' street, Phelps saw something that made him smile. His mother, Debbie, had blanketed his house with banners and American flags to celebrate his return. It looked more like a shrine than a family dwelling. The stern coach was furious.
"Bob was like, 'Debbie, take those down! We don't need those up. There is so much more that's going to happen. We can't do this for everything,'" Phelps says. "I think it was then that I realized you can't get caught up on one thing. You just have to keep going."
Since that day, Michael Phelps has never been big on self-reflection. He rarely, if ever, looks at the gold medals he won in Athens, Greece, in 2004. He doesn't think much about past accomplishments or dwell on the forces that shaped him into the man he is today.
Especially not as he prepares for this week's start of the Beijing Olympics, which many expect will be the pinnacle of his career. If he wins just four gold medals - a virtual lock - he'll be the most decorated Olympic athlete ever. NBC, which paid a reported $800 million for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, has decided to make Phelps the face of the Games. You'll see him every time you turn on your television, and not just in the pool. He'll be featured in a stream of commercials, pitching products including low-interest credit cards, designer watches, skin-tight swimsuits and energy bars.
The past, though, is important. When you watch Phelps swim in Beijing - when you tune in to see if he can accomplish the unprecedented, winning eight gold medals - know that it is possible only because of what has happened in the past four years, after he became famous by winning six gold medals in Athens.
The fist pumps at the end of a race and the grinning poses atop the medal stand aren't as important as the moments that took place when few were watching. Those moments show a teenager outgrowing his adolescence and coping with unexpected fame. They capture ambition as well as failure. There is triumph and disappointment, but there is also growth.
If you could study them, you'd begin to see how time and pain - two of the most powerful forces in a swimmer's life - have shaped the second act of Michael Phelps' career.
You'd understand the uncharted course a great Olympic swimmer had to take as he navigated the choppy waters between boyhood and manhood, and in the process became, at age 23, the greatest swimmer of all time.
Chapter 1: The big mistakeIt's Nov. 15, 2004 - a cool, fall Monday morning in Manhattan - and on the Today show set, just a few minutes after 7 a.m., a 19-year-old Michael Phelps sits across from the show's host, Matt Lauer. Wearing a black Speedo polo shirt and gray slacks, Phelps looks nervous and uncomfortable. There are bags under his eyes, hinting at a lack of sleep, and his gaze rarely leaves his lap for more than a few seconds.
Eleven days before this moment, he was visiting his best friend at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. At an off-campus party, Phelps had a few drinks. In the years leading up to Athens, every decision was made with swimming in mind, and so after the Olympics, he was given time to decompress. To be a kid. To leave the pool and make mistakes.
In Salisbury, he made a big one. After leaving the party, he rolled through a stop sign while making a right turn in his Land Rover. He was pulled over and charged with driving while intoxicated.
This is his first television interview since the arrest. Later, Lauer and the Today gang will giggle through a cooking lesson from "The Naked Chef." But in this moment, Lauer puts some hard questions to Phelps.
"For that 12-or 13-year-old boy or girl who's got the poster of Michael Phelps up on the wall in their bedroom, and they're throwing on the swim cap every day, running to the pool to try and be like Mike, what do you say?" Lauer asks.
"I definitely let myself down and my family down," Phelps says, and the camera moves in for a close-up. His eyes only briefly meet Lauer's.
"Let me just ask you for the record," Lauer says. "Do you have a problem with alcohol, or is this an isolated incident?"
"This was an isolated incident," Phelps says.
The past week, Phelps adds, has been one of the hardest of his life. He could not look his mother in the eye when she met him at his lawyer's office after his arrest. He had to sit on a plane and watch people around him read stories about his arrest.
"I think I let a lot of people in the country down," he says. "Hopefully, I still have people out there who are fans and who are supporters."
In the months and years that follow, the embarrassment fades. The incident, for the most part, gets chalked up to the foolishness of youth. A costly lesson learned.
He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, got 18 months probation and had autograph seekers waiting for him in the parking lot after he left the courtroom. He spoke to classrooms full of kids about the dangers of alcohol. His sponsors stuck by him. Four years later, the incident remains one of his least favorite subjects.
Ask him to name the dumbest thing he's ever done and you'll get an interesting answer.
"I think I've had stupid things that I've done, but I've been able to learn from all of them," Phelps says. "You learn the most from mistakes you make. They all may not be good, but I think I've learned from every mistake I've made. In that respect, I don't think I've done any stupid things."
It would be neat and tidy if that one moment represented all the maturation necessary in his journey - an epiphany that forced him to grow up in an instant.
Growing up, though, takes time. Even if you're Michael Phelps.
Chapter II: Leaving the nestIt's early December, still 2004, and in the snowy college town of Ann Arbor, Mich., Phelps is homesick. The plan was to move here after the Olympics, become a Michigan Man with all that entails - take classes, watch football games and train with other elite swimmers. But now that he's here, it doesn't feel right. It's cold. He's lonely. He's been living with his coach, and they've been at each other's throats.
He can't swim because of back pain, an injury he picked up while riding a bus around the country to promote the sport. Phelps is concerned that the injury could be chronic and that he'll never be the same swimmer he was in Athens. A similar injury ended his sister Whitney's swimming career.
He's isolated from the water, the one thing he knows best. He misses his mom. He misses home-cooked meals, Ravens games and Baltimore accents. He wonders if coming here was a mistake.
One day he walks into his coach's tiny office, tucked inside the Canham Natatorium, the spacious athletic cathedral where Michigan swimmers train. Four hours a day, for the next four years, it's the place Phelps is supposed to train and call home.
His coach, Bob Bowman, has closely cropped gray hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses that mask a demanding intensity. Bowman has been the dominant male authority figure in Phelps' life since he was 11 years old. For years, Phelps has had a tense and sometimes nonexistent relationship with his father, Fred, who divorced Debbie Phelps when Michael was 9.
Bowman and Phelps have had their share of verbal wars, but they've always been honest with one another. Because of that, Phelps is willing to confess to Bowman: I don't think I fit in here.
Michael, Bowman says, you probably wouldn't fit in anywhere. At least not at first. But give it time.
He mulls it over, compiles a list of pros and cons, and decides to stay. Phelps buys a three-bedroom brownstone in downtown Ann Arbor. Bowman realizes that, away from the pool, he has to force Phelps to fend for himself. Outside of practice, they don't have much interaction.
The gold medalist learns, every so slowly, to do laundry, make meals and load his dishwasher.
The last one presents a unique challenge. One day, Phelps floods his kitchen with tiny bubbles when he puts hand soap in the dishwasher instead of detergent. He knows how hilarious this image is, a frantic superhero buried to his knees in suds.
For the next two years, it will be his go-to anecdote when asked to talk about his personal growth in Ann Arbor. The story seems fresh and funny at first, then rehearsed by the fifth time he tells it.
Privately, everyone around him understands, real growth is more complicated.
Chapter III: Feeling mortalIt's July 30, 2005, and the sun is going down outside Parc Jean-Drapeau in Montreal, bringing the FINA World Championships to a close. Phelps scowls his way through an uncomfortable news conference. He's trying to sum up his week, which includes a 7th-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle and a failure to even make the semifinals in the 400 free.
He's also won five gold medals at this meet, but inside he's furious. The rehearsed cliches have been replaced by raw emotion.
Less than an hour ago, Ian Crocker handed Phelps his worst defeat in years, beating him by 1.25 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly. He and Crocker are friends, as much as two hyper-competitive rivals can truly be friends, but there is also an unspoken tension between them. Crocker, a laconic intellectual who spends his time away from the pool soaking up the beauty of music, literature and life, is the one man on Earth who makes Phelps look mortal. Crocker's world record in the 100-meter butterfly (50.40) might be the one record Phelps wants the most.
"This entire year, and this world championships, have been a big wake-up call for me," Phelps says.
He looks like he wants to scream.
"I don't like the feeling of not doing my best times. What happened here, I'm going to use for motivation, and hopefully by next summer, I'll be able to give [Crocker] a race. He sort of ran away with it. I wasn't even a factor."
In the past year, there's been so much to digest. In addition to taking his first college courses, he's been on Regis and Kelly. He's done the Tonight show and Access Hollywood. He's had his famous abs poked by Vanessa Minnillo on MTV. He's been a judge in the Miss America pageant. He's tried to score Jenna Bush's cell number in a New York City club. He's filmed commercials and co-written his autobiography.
In between all that, he's swum thousands of meters. But at the close of the World Championships, it was not nearly enough. In his heart, he realizes he wasn't always dedicated to his training. That will change.
Nothing has ever lit his internal fire quite like failure. It has always been his biggest motivator.
He will spend the next two years punishing his body, in the pool and in the weight room, telling himself one thing.
Chapter IV: Going all inIt's Dec. 7, 2006, but it could be any evening because Michael Phelps is playing Texas Hold 'Em. Tonight, it's a charity tournament, organized to raise money to benefit the Nebraska Make-a-Wish program. It includes amateurs, professionals and even billionaire Warren Buffett.
It could just as easily be a night out at one of the casinos near Ann Arbor, or an afternoon game between Phelps and one of his friends in the airport while they wait for a plane. (Starburst candies, in airports, are the perfect substitute for poker chips.)
He is in love with risk and strategy and the methodical maneuvering the game requires. He relishes staring down an opponent. It's similar to the approach he takes when he shows up at the pool, headphones on, blocking everyone else out. He's not much of a reader, but he devours the two most popular pieces of gambling literature, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus and Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.
Once, in a casino with friends, he found himself getting bullied by another player who, despite bad positions and weak face cards, clearly wanted to tell his buddies that he bluffed the great Michael Phelps.
"Keep playing like that, because you're really going to make a lot of money," Phelps told the guy after the hand was over, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
In one sense, choosing to race in the 200-meter freestyle in Athens was like calling a big raise by Australian Ian Thorpe in a game of Texas Hold 'Em. Phelps knew it was a long shot, knew he'd have to swim the perfect race and get a little lucky. Phelps, because he had studied Thorpe's strokes, his mannerisms, his grace when dealing with the news media, wanted to take that chance, even if finishing third behind Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband would spoil a perfect Olympics.
He spent years yearning for a rematch and figured it would come on Thorpe's home turf, at the FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in 2007. But then Thorpe surprisingly retired, burned out on the sport. Inside, Phelps seethed.
Australians made it a point to needle Phelps, saying he'd always be second to "the Thorpedo" in the eyes of history. The world championships, though, are just a few months away.
Phelps wants to show Australia, and the world, what happens when he decides to go all in.
Chapter V: The big brotherIt's April 2, 2007, closing in on midnight in Australia. Phelps has just wrapped up an unthinkable week in Melbourne, dominating the FINA World Championships like no one before him. He's won seven gold medals and set five world records.
His friends are shooting him text messages from oceans away, telling him he's the subject of major debate on his two favorite programs: ESPN SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption. Is Phelps one of the greatest athletes of all time? Opinions vary. But he has people talking about swimming in a non-Olympic year. This is the life he's dreamed of since he put a poster of swimming great Pablo Morales on his childhood bedroom wall in Rodgers Forge.
During his final news conference of the meet, a horde of media is packed into a tiny auditorium deep in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena. Everyone is waiting for the chance to pepper him with questions:
What does this mean for Beijing?
How fast can you go?
What does it feel like to be Superman?
His mind is somewhere else. He keeps glancing at a television set in the back of the room.
Finally, he holds up his hand.
"Hang on just a second," Phelps says.
All the heads in the room turn. He's watching fellow North Baltimore Aquatic Club product Katie Hoff swim the 400-meter individual medley.
"C'mon, Katie!" he says.
When Hoff touches the wall, grabbing her first world record in an individual event, Phelps smiles and gives a tiny fist pump. Only then does he refocus on the reporters.
"Sorry," he says. "Didn't want to miss that."
He's exhausted, tired of living out of a suitcase, and wants to get this over with and go to bed. But he had to watch. Phelps has been something of a big brother to Hoff the past few years, teasing her and making her flinch at every opportunity.
"I could have like a million records, and he'd still give me grief," Hoff says.
They'll be taking a trip to Beijing together soon, on behalf of Visa, to celebrate the date when the Olympics are a year away. Both of them want to see the Great Wall.
By nature, he is a solitary man once he gets to the pool. He has to be, to maintain his rigid focus. He never interacts with anyone but Bowman until his races are over. But watch him once he's done, and you'll see a man who is incredibly invested in the success of people he cares about.
"He's unbelievably kind-hearted," Bowman says. "I think when you see him compete, all you see is this ruthless competitor.
"I remember when we were in Baltimore, our practice would be over, and the very youngest kids would be in right after us. And there wasn't a day go by that he wouldn't have some interaction with those kids."
Chapter VI: The fallOn Michael Phelps' right wrist, there is a tiny purple scar less than a half-inch long. He suffered the injury on an October 2007 day in Ann Arbor when he stumbled, tried to brace himself and cracked his scaphoid bone. He hoped it was nothing, but when his worst fears were confirmed by X-ray, he was devastated. He was so scared to call Bowman to break the news, he asked Michigan's trainer to do it.
"This is it," a teary Phelps told Bowman when he finally got on the line. "It's over. I'm finished."
After surgery to insert a small pin into his wrist, everything that happened in Australia suddenly seems irrelevant. His training isn't going particularly well, and frustration is creeping in. He'll have two good weeks, then two miserable days. He's in a funk.
It's about a month after the fall, Nov. 18, 2007, and dusk in Beverly Hills, Calif. Cars are pulling up in front of the Beverly Hilton on Wilshire Boulevard, and the best swimmers in the world are stepping onto the red carpet.
They're here to celebrate the Golden Goggle Awards, swimming's version of the Oscars. Ryan Lochte is dressed in a white suit, a black shirt and has on a red silk tie. He looks like he just stepped out of a Cuban casino. Dana Vollmer is wearing a black sequined dress with a V-cut in the back that is so dramatic, you can see her tattoo of the Olympic rings on the small of her lower back. Even Mark Spitz is here, eyeballing the room, in a gray pinstripe suit that matches his hair.
Phelps - dark gray suit, gray shirt and gray tie - is not in a good mood, even though he will win multiple awards. He mumbles his way through a television interview with a European TV crew. He forces a few smiles and fidgets impatiently between interviews. A representative from his marketing firm, Octagon, informs a reporter that Phelps doesn't really feel like talking tonight. An hourlong interview is shortened to 4 minutes and 13 seconds.
Tonight, everyone wants a picture with him or a hug. Even swimmers are drawn to him. He floats around the reception, forcing a smile but barely engaging anyone for long. His girlfriend is here with him, a stunning brunette with dark features and perfect skin.
Late in the evening, he steps to the podium to accept his second-consecutive Swimmer of the Year Award. He and Lochte trade Young Jeezy lyrics in their acceptance speeches, one of the few times he shows a genuine smile all night.
In a month, he'll test the wrist for the first time in competition at a meet in Atlanta. He has no idea what to expect.
Beijing is 265 days away.
Chapter VII: Marketing machineIt's March 26, 2008, and Michael Phelps is driving Bowman's Land Rover with one knee while he checks his BlackBerry. An Ann Arbor hip-hop station is blaring from the radio. He's not wearing a seat belt. He looks as if he could be any one of a thousand Michigan undergrads hurrying to get to class.
Instead, he's on his way to shoot the second half of a commercial for Rosetta Stone, a language software company paying him to endorse its product and learn Mandarin before the Olympics. It's a rare morning off from training, and he's in a good mood. An entire creative team is waiting to determine what clothes he should wear, what lines he should say and how he should look when he walks a bulldog named Winston, who is playing the part of his own pet bulldog, Herman.
"This is like the third commercial I've done with this dog," he says, wrinkling his nose. "This dog reeks."
The next stop is a two-bedroom brownstone on Main Street, just a few doors down from the house where he lived for three years. He sold it to cut down on distractions. For the purpose of this commercial, however, he still lives downtown. He also prepares his own food, an acknowledged rarity. In the kitchen, a producer hands him two 8-inch knives and asks him to mimic vigorous chopping. At his feet, the producer's assistants are getting ready to throw handfuls of diced peppers into the air.
"OK, Mike, I want you to look really focused, whipping those knives up and down almost like you're playing drums," the producer says.
"I don't play drums," Phelps says.
"OK, well, pretend you're at a Benihana," the producer says.
For the next 20 seconds, Phelps' arms are a blur. Diced peppers are flying through the air and bouncing off appliances, as well as his face. He does his best to keep from laughing. It looks ridiculous now, but it will look perfect once it's edited. It will help Rosetta Stone move units and make money. Phelps, too. His annual earnings, according to recent estimates, are about $5 million a year, and his list of international sponsors includes Speedo, PowerBar, Matsunichi and Omega. His Mandarin, however, is limited to a few words.
The shoot is wrapping up. There will be a few more commercials to shoot before the Olympics, but Octagon and Bowman have had several discussions about how much training he can miss to do promotions. The media's access to him, at this point, is limited mostly to swim meets and news conferences.
"I don't really tell people no, I just have someone do it for me," Phelps says, grinning.
He heads back to the pool for his afternoon practice. He suspects it will be grueling. Bowman, who had to go out of town for a few days, has left the Club Wolverine swimmers a note on the dry erase board next to the pool.
"100 percent participating required. NO DEALS!"
It's obvious whom the note is intended for.
Chapter VIII: Ready for BeijingMichael Phelps is standing in front of a room full of reporters, looking relaxed. He has just wrapped up a dominating performance at the U.S. Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., winning all of his events, setting two world records and putting to rest any doubts about whether he'll be ready for Beijing.
It's July 5, 2008, and he's at ease, making people laugh, telling stories at a news media luncheon sponsored by Omega. His mom, Debbie, is here, too. He's barely seen her in months, but she's been watching him swim all week, and they had dinner to celebrate his 23rd birthday.
He worries about her. If it were up to him, she'd have retired already, but she doesn't want to hear it. The principal at Windsor Mill Middle School, she cares about her students too much to walk away.
Debbie is the one person he will always listen to. Others - Bowman, his representatives at Octagon, his sponsors, even his girlfriend - have to adjust their worlds according to his needs. If he wants to play video games, he's playing video games. But not his mom. She's still the most influential voice in his life.
It's been that way since his parents' divorce. He believes his work ethic came from watching her raise three kids by herself. When he was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 9, she just worked harder to make sure he did his homework and learned to focus in class. Now she's a spokesman for ADHD Moms, a Web site to educate parents. He wonders if she'll ever have time for herself.
He can't wait to move back to Baltimore after the Beijing Games, when Bowman takes over as the chief executive officer at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He doesn't see himself swimming past age 30, though. He longs for the day when he can stay in bed until 2 p.m. and not feel guilty.
Someone asks him a question about growing up, and what it was like when he wasn't the best in the world. He smiles. He tells a story about the first time he lost a race.
"I remember I got out-touched at the wall, and I threw my goggles," Phelps says. "I was 8 years old. I didn't like to lose. I had to kind of grow out of that stage where you throw temper tantrums."
Everyone in the room chuckles. Reporters scribble down the anecdote. It's meant to signify growth and maturity.
It does, in a sense. But it's also just one moment in a long journey that brought him to where he is now.
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