Bob Bowman has proven to be more than Michael Phelps' coach
Having seen swimmer through four Olympics, it's time for both to enjoy life
"He has been the one person that's got me where I am today," Michael Phelps recently said of his coach, Bob Bowman. (Nick Laham, Getty Images / May 13, 2012)
With the same smallish glasses and the same close-clipped hair, Bowman became himself some time ago, while Phelps has evolved from 11-year-old raw talent to 27-year-old Olympic great — due in no small part to the constant in his life in the pool and beyond: his coach.
"He has been the one person that's got me where I am today," Phelps said recenty. "He's the best coach for me."
While other swimmers have changed coaches over the span of their careers, either as they've transitioned from club team to college and back or because the water always seems bluer somewhere else, Bowman and Phelps are something of the old married couple of their sport.
"I would say that the reason we have done so well together is that we are both absolutely honest with each other all the time," Bowman, 47, said. "We know exactly where the other stands at all times. That can mean some fireworks sometimes because neither one of us likes to back down on anything, but I think that's the deal."
"We're a lot more laid back and relaxed than we've ever been," Phelps said Wednesday in London. "We've just been having fun, and that's been the biggest thing we wanted to do ... enjoy the last year, and we've been able to do that."
Those fireworks have been epic at times — we're talking screaming matches on the pool deck — but when you see them now, it's hard to imagine such scenes. For one thing, as Phelps has grown into adulthood, they are more collaborators and partners than coach and swimmer.
And in fact, while the shorthand way of referring to Bowman is as Phelps' swim coach, that doesn't really capture the scope of his role, in the pool or beyond. He is a father figure, a friend, a business partner, an adviser, a spokesman, even a bit of a bodyguard.
Bowman, originally from South Carolina, joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington in 1996. Phelps had followed his sisters Hilary and Whitney there, and Bowman saw his potential, telling his parents that Michael could be an Olympian.
They are approaching their fourth and final Olympics together with goals to which no one else is privy, whether it's a medal count or a certain time for each race. What Bowman will say, though, is that his goal for both of them is that after all the years focused on training, races and medals, they also enjoy the fruits of their shared labor.
"Hopefully we get there, we enjoy this week and truly get to soak it in," Bowman said recently. "I would like for us to be able to savor this experience and get all the best parts of it out again. Not that we didn't get good things out of it before, but when you're than hyperfocused, it's tough. You look back and it's over."
Soon, it actually will be: Phelps insists he is retiring after the London Games, and while there are those who hope he'll change his mind, Bowman isn't one of them. It's like college, Bowman says, at some point you have to graduate.
For his part, Bowman is taking the next year off from coaching. He hasn't taken much time off over the years that he has worked with Phelps and other swimmers, just getting them in shape for one Olympics — or Nationals or World Championships — before it seems like it's time to start working toward another.
He already has a fall vacation planned to Tuscany and Provence — the U.S. team's pre-Olympic training camp in Vichy, France, no doubt gave him a preview — and another trip planned to Australia.
It's never been all about swimming for Bowman, something of a Renaissance man in his passions. While he swam in college at Florida State, Bowman minored in music composition, plays the piano and loves classical music. He knows his way around a kitchen — Phelps' mother, Debbie, says his lobster mac-and-cheese is to die for — and a wine cellar. He has bred horses in the past and would like to train them someday, and for now at least lives in horse country, in a home he had built on 37 acres in Monkton.
You'd probably have to search pretty far to find another coach whose tweets range from Beethoven to the Barefoot Contessa (Ina not Ava) to Bob Baffert.
Still, if you're largely known for what you've accomplished in the world of swimming, having shepherded the swimming career of Michael Phelps is not a bad first line on a resume.
Phelps followed Bowman when he took the job as head coach of the University of Michigan after the Athens Olympics. Bowman took over for longtime coach Jon Urbanchek, who stayed on as his assistant for four years — although he gave himself some unofficial duties as well.
"My real job was to keep the peace between Bob and Michael," Urbanchek said with a laugh. "Both Bob and Michael are hard-headed. I'm more a peacemaker."
Urbanchek, now based in Fullerton, Cal., says Bowman deserves gold himself for how he has marshalled Phelps' development. It's no "piece of cake" coaching talented swimmers, even one Urbanchek considers the greatest of all time.
"Sometimes they want their own way, they don't always follow the script," Urbanchek said. "It's very demanding."
After the Beijing Games, Phelps and Bowman returned to Baltimore, as co-owners of the NBAC, to train for London — although one of them got a later start than the other on that particular quest.
Mentally and physically exhausted from his record-breaking eight-for-eight gold-medal sweep, Phelps went AWOL on Bowman for a time. He skipped out on practice in favor of the golf course or trips to Las Vegas with his friends. He eventually came around, though, and now the two are seemingly in sync once again as the Gamesare about to begin.
"Bob is really enjoying the moment," said Allison Schmitt, who trains with Bowman and Phelps and is headed to what could be a big Olympics herself.
All year, at Debbie Phelps' request, Bowman and Phelps have been posing for a photo at every venue along the way — their last trials in Omaha and their last practice at Meadowbrook are recent entries. And now, London.
While others will make judgments based on how many medals Phelps wins, or how he does against rival Ryan Lochte, Bowman considers whatever happens to be "gravy" atop what the swimmer — and by extension, the coach — has already accomplished.
"I don't think anything he could do or not do will change his legacy," Bowman said. "He's the greatest Olympian of all time today, he will be after this summer, I think."