Bob Bowman gets to the question before it can even be raised.
"You guys want to know if Michael's coming back," he says to a pair of visitors.
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"I'd be the first to know," Bowman says. "And I haven't heard a thing from him. So the imminent comeback is not so imminent."
Furthermore, he would not want Phelps to resume swimming unless the great Olympian was absolutely committed, more committed than he was leading up to the 2012 London Games. Bowman grew so frustrated with Phelps' pre-Olympic malaise that at one point, he left the country for weeks to decompress.
"I would only let him come back if he really wanted to do it," he says, looking skeptical at the idea in his office at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in North Baltimore.
With that subject nipped in the bud, Bowman is ready to chat about his own life over the past 10 months. He has only recently resumed day-to-day coaching after a post-Olympics swirl that included consulting trips to England and Turkey, a rekindling of his interest in thoroughbred racing and lazy (well, relatively) days at his beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
He returned refreshed and more forgiving, in time to prepare 12 swimmers for the Phillips 66 U.S. National Championships and World Championship Trials, which concluded Saturday in Indianapolis. Focusing on a larger team has invigorated him, friends say.
Every day for the better part of 12 years, Bowman woke with one purpose — to get Phelps ready for the next Olympics. So when they finished their quest last summer — the record for total Olympic medals finally theirs — the coach began a long exhale.
As an obsessive student of swimming, he could not have asked for a more invigorating experience than working with Phelps. But it was exhausting as well — the schedule, the competition, the scrutiny all so much more heightened than with any other swimmer.
"I put him through the wringer," Phelps says. "I'll be the first to tell you that. When I first started with him, that hair was brown. Now it's nothing but white. I forced that hair change."
Bowman, 48, thought he might be done with coaching.
"Honestly, I did not think I was coming back," he says of his post-Olympic months.
For the first time in decades, he did not have to keep daily practice appointments at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. Weekends were an open book. If he felt like driving to his beach house or visiting his friend Graham Motion, who trains Bowman's thoroughbreds at Fair Hill, he could do it.
He found plenty of work in swimming without coaching potential Olympians. He and Phelps were busy opening Michael Phelps swim schools in New York and California. They worked on a pilot for Phelps-Bowman academies, designed to train top swimmers in other countries. Through his ties with top international athletic officials, Bowman secured consulting gigs with the national swimming programs in the United Kingdom and Turkey.
He has been to Istanbul three times in recent months. "It's just a lot of talking and asking questions," he says. "I'm finally just getting a good picture of what exists over there."
Turkey has private athletic clubs with sparkling 50-meter pools and a bustling system of youth participation. But the whole thing lacks overarching management, which is where Bowman — gifted with a sense of purpose — comes in.
Despite his long ties to USA Swimming, he feels no qualms about lifting other countries to more competitive levels.
"It makes everybody better," he says. "We're doing what Michael has always talked about. We want to grow the sport of swimming worldwide."
On some basic level, however, this loose and free existence did not suit Bowman, whose pink face and rounded features belie his intensity. The truth is he likes rising with the sun and going to the pool to do grunt work with swimmers who share his fierce dedication.