After winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Phelps not only felt like he'd lose his mind if he continued his laser-like focus on breaking world records, he also felt like it was important for him to promote the sport in ways that extended beyond dominating in the pool. That meant going to events, appearing on television, focusing on endorsements and growing his brand. He's even shown up in the gossip magazines with some frequency, playing poker or going to events in Las Vegas, enjoying himself the way many wealthy, famous 25-year-olds tend to do.
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"We hope to become nation-wide and world-wide before London," Phelps said. "It's a lofty goal, but that's our goal. I can't really get specific on the details, but it is expanding right now to different cities and states. We're trying to go up and down the East Coast first, then go west. It's a lot happening in a short amount of time."
As a result, he's trained less, which one could argue has been both a blessing and curse. Phelps has certainly done his part to make swimming more popular — he met with a select group of reporters recently as part of a promotion for the upcoming release of his video game, "Michael Phelps: Push The Limit" — but he also might no longer hold the unofficial title as the best swimmer in the world. Even Bowman — who has been Phelps' coach since he was 12 years old — believes that title currently belongs to Ryan Lochte, who has dominated the sport over the last two years.
It's an interesting time for Phelps, all things considered. The 2011 FINA World Championships, which will be held in Shanghai, China at the end of July, are looming, and no one is quite sure what to expect from the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner. Phelps has been on record saying he'll retire after the London Olympics in 2012.
His motivation has wavered in recent years. Some days, he's the same steely-eyed, stone-faced competitor he's always been, and other times, he's been unable to summon the same intensity that made him a legend in the sport. At times, he's even an underdog.
"It's an interesting role," Bowman said. "It's kind of like we were eight or ten years ago. It's kind of fun, actually. As we get closer and closer to [the Olympics], he's waking up."
Lack of training did, however, catch up with him recently at a swim meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when for the first time in nearly a decade, he lost to someone in the 200 meter butterfly. And he didn't lose by merely a fingernail. He finished fourth, behind China's Wu Peng, Germany's Marcin Cieslak, and American Tyler Clary.
"It's frustrating, but it's obvious what's going on," Phelps said. "It's just like anything else. You have to work hard at something to be able to achieve something. I'll be the first one to admit, I haven't put in enough work since Beijing. I know that. You're not hiding anything from me. I see it, and it's frustrating. But also at the same time, I'm doing it to myself. I wasn't too happy after Ann Arbor, and losing that streak was something I was disappointed with. Nine years is a long time. That would have been cool to be able to retire and still have that streak, but I'm actually kind of happy, too. It's better that it happened now [rather] than at Worlds, Trials or the Olympics. I think that's going to be used as motivation, along with some other things."
Bowman, though, can't find too much fault in what's happened.
"Who could blame him, really?" Bowman said. "How man Grand Prix events can you swim in? I think he's really excited about Worlds and about Shanghai. And that's where his focus is. Could he have done a better job? Well, yeah. But it's a very long time to go to be [at the top] all the time. I'm happy to let him come down a little bit, and then we can kind of work back up."
Phelps acknowledged that his fellow competitors don't seem to be in awe of him the way they once were. Phelps said he felt like people were more than happy to talk about how beatable he looked in Ann Arbor, and that he even overheard some of it on the pool deck, the kind of trash talking no one would have dared attempt in year's past.
"It's interesting," Phelps said. "You can tell by body language. I've noticed it a lot more the last two years than I really ever have. That's something I've always watched, how people are acting toward me, and how they've changed."
Slights, whether they're real or imagined, have always been the one thing that never fails to stoke Phelps' competitive fire. In 2007, when Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe stated, somewhat respectfully, that he didn't think Phelps would be able to win eight gold medals in Beijing, it made Phelps so furious he taped Thorpe's quote to his locker and stared at it every day before practice leading up to Beijing. When Thorpe announced this year that he was coming out of retirement and hoping to swim in London, Phelps was thrilled. He's still motivated by the 200 meter freestyle in Athens, a race Thorpe won while a 19-year-old Phelps finished third.
"I love it," Phelps said. "It's something I would have liked to see him do awhile ago. We've only raced once or twice. Him coming out of retirement after seven years is going to be interesting. If he gets back to the top, he really wants to do it. And that's going to be the only way. I want to race him again, and I want to race him again when we're both at our peak. It's a good possibility that will happen. He's talented enough. He's strong enough. He's fast enough."
Phelps has also been experimenting with different training techniques, including sleeping in an altitude tent at night to strengthen oxygen production. He got the idea when he and Bowman were talking recently about why he always trains better when he goes to Colorado Springs and stays at the U.S. Olympic Development Center. It's the altitude.
"It looks like my bed is like a fish tank," Phelps said. "Right now, I'm sleeping at [the equivalent of] almost 6,000 feet above sea level. You can feel it when you open the door in the morning. I do feel like my body is recovering faster than it was without it. We're going to work our way up to 10,000 feet. We'll see how it goes. Right now, I feel better in the water than a couple months ago, so I'm encouraged. I feel like 'What's the worst thing that could happen?' "
In the meantime, Phelps will continue to try and juggle his role as a celebrity, a promoter and an athlete. When his agent, Peter Carlisle, came to him with the idea of a swimming video game two years ago, he thought back to all the time he spent as a kid playing Atari with his sisters and then Tiger Woods and Madden on XBox when he got older. He liked the idea, and tried to be involved in almost every step of the development. The result was a game that uses the motion-sensing Kinect technology to control a swimmer, meaning you actually have to do the physical strokes to play the game.
"To be able to have my own video game, the first swimming game, is pretty cool," Phelps said. "I like the fact that it's one of a kind. You actually have to do all the strokes. You can't just sit there on the couch. Hopefully it gets people off the couch and into the pool."
Phelps grins as he thinks about what he just said. It's not bad advice, even for a 14-time gold medal winner.