CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michael Phelps remembers this as the city where he "came back," prompting his coach Bob Bowman to ask with mock innocence, "from where?"
Bowman well knows, of course, that Phelps was referring to swimming his first race, the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix in 2009, after returning from a suspension after a photo of him with a marijuana bong surfaced. This weekend, he competed here for the last time, another stop in the valedictory lap he has been taking as he trains for his fourth and final Olympics this summer.
He exited Charlotte with a second place finish in the 200-meter butterfly, just .18 seconds after Peng Wu, 24, a Chinese swimmer who trains in Michigan and has beaten him in this race. Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Allison Schmitt, 21, won her race, the 400-meter freestyle, breaking a previous meet record with a 4:05.40 finish.
Phelps said that while he never likes to lose, at this point in his Olympics preparations, individual races are not as important as his daily training, where he can work on such things as his strokes, turns and timing. "These are, I like to call them quizzes, along the way," he said of the Grand Prix race series.For the sellout crowd, though, which screamed through much of the close race, it was a chance to see Phelps in the flesh one last time -- something not lost on the swimmer himself.
"As soon as I heard the crowd in the second 50, I was like, man, don't over-swim this," he said. "You do get worked up. I heard the crowd every single step of the way."
If Phelps has been on a tour of "lasts" -- this is his last Grand Prix -- it's also the end of one road for his coach Bob Bowman.
Bowman said this week he plans to take a year off after London -- a hard-earned vacation after more than 15 years of marshaling Phelps' rise and ultimate dominance in the world of swimming, but also something of a natural break before continuing a coaching career without this singular protege.
There will never be, he acknowledges, another Michael Phelps.
"Thank God," Bowman said Saturday. "One is plenty, trust me."
At this point in their relationship, the two banter and roll their eyes at one another during media events, playing exasperated coach and feckless athlete. There may have been some truth to that, especially in the past when they often butted heads over Bowman's demanding training regimen, but over the years, they've developed into close friends and partners in Phelps' quest to continue elevating his sport -- both in London and beyond.
"We both obviously want to be the best, and neither of us is going to settle," Phelps said.
Bowman, 47, is relishing the prospect of what he calls a year's worth of spring breaks. No more twice-a-day drills at Meadowbrook pool in Baltimore, no more deck-side stalking, whistling and stop-watching, no more traveling from one chlorine-fumed natatorium to another.In their place, he plans some real travel, not the current airport-hotel-pool circuit that has brought him here for one final major racing event before the Olympic qualifying trials 1 1/2 months from now in Omaha.
"I've traveled, but I haven't seen anything," Bowman said. "I've seen a lot of pools."
He already has plans for a fall trip to Tuscany and Provence. He'll go to Australia, a favorite country, and visit friends. When the Ravens are playing at home, he and Phelps will watch from a suite they'll share. And he'll have more time for breeding and enjoying thoroughbred horses, a passion that has taken more of a back seat in his life of late than he'd like.
"I used to breed them," he said. "And I've always had a dream of training them."
By Bowman's reckoning, that might not be much different from coaching swimmers -- both need a "pop" every once in the while, he said, slapping his own hip.
But Bowman and Phelps have many of those miles to go before their next chapters.On Sunday, they head to Dallas to join other Olympians attending a "media summit" organized by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Then it's off to Colorado, for another round of altitude training where "we're literally locked away from everything," Phelps said.
Then, he'll swim in an invitational meet in Austin in early June, and, at the end of that month, compete in the Olympic qualify trials in Omaha.
He won't entirely escape swimming during his sabbatical, though, nor Phelps. The two jointly own the business end of Meadowbrook and NBAC, so Bowman will drop in at the pool occasionally even if his focus will be more on the administrative end of things.