When the whole world is writing about someone like Michael Phelps, you tend to get a lot of overlap. If you've been following the Olympics by now, you probably know the basics. Phelps grew up just outside of Baltimore, and battled ADHD as a kid. He was raised, mostly, by his mother, Debbie, a middle school principal. He adored and idolized his two older sisters, Whitney and Hilary, and they're the main reason he became a swimmer. Michael's father, Fred, wasn't around enough (in Michael's opinion) after Fred and Debbie got divorced when he was 9 years old. Father and son have a chilly relationship, and do not speak often, if at all.
You might feel like you've heard those details hundreds of times by now. I decided to rack my brain and try to come up with eight things you might not know. Eight, as you've probably heard, has special significance this week in China, so that's the number we're shooting for. Some are about his personality, some about his equipment, and some are just answers to silly questions I get all the time. But as you watch what could go down as one of the greatest sporting achievements in history, at the very least, you'll be able to explain to your friends why he wears two swim caps in the pool (which is the most frequent question I'm asked about Phelps).
1. HE WEARS TWO SWIM CAPS TO SMOOTH OUT THE WRINKLES FROM THE FIRST: This is actually something a lot of swimmers do, and it's probably more psychological than anything. The goal is to make your head as smooth as possible and thus able to move through the water faster. When races are decided by hundredths of a second, swimmers will try to get any advantage. Mostly, it simply feels more secure. It's a way to keep your goggles tighter to your head as well, but it can also cause problems. In the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps goggles filled up with water. Normally a swimmer can try to rip them off their face if that happens, but not when you're wearing two swim caps.
2. ERIK VENDT, NOT RYAN LOCHTE, IS PROBABLY HIS CLOSEST FRIEND IN SWIMMING: Phelps and Lochte are pals -- they have a shared interest in music, women, life -- but they never talk about swimming. They're too competitive. Vendt, who trained with Phelps the last two years in Michigan, was one of his closest confidants during this difficult year that included uneven training and a broken wrist. They're also roommates during most swim meets. "He's helped me through a lot of tough times (at Michigan)," Phelps said. Other than relay finishes in Athens and Beijing, the most intense yelling I've ever seen Phelps do was one day poolside at the Missouri Grand Prix in Columbia, Mo. Vendt was threatening the American record in the 1,500, and Phelps was bellowing at the top of his lungs, trying to urge Vendt on throughout the race.
Phelps, who considers himself completely non-political, often finds himself in the middle of political discussions because Vendt, a ardent Ron Paul supporter, is a political junkie and he and fellow Club Wolverine swimmer Davis Tarwater, who trends liberal, love to argue politics before practice with coach Bob Bowman, (who trends conservative and is a McCain supporter). "They go at is right from the start of practice," Phelps says. "They're always like 'Did you see Hillary (Clinton's) speech last night?' and I'm like 'What do you think?' "
3. HE WEARS DIFFERENT SUITS FOR DIFFERENT EVENTS BECAUSE SOME SUITS ARE DESIGNED FOR CERTAIN STROKES: When you watch Phelps swim the freestyle events, he usually wears the kind of Speedo LZR Racer that has straps over his shoulders and goes all the way down to his ankles. But when he swims an event where he needs to perform the butterfly stroke, he only wears the LZR Racer pants. There is so much shoulder motion required for the fly, he feels more comfortable without something over his shoulders. You'll also see him in the relays immediately unzip his suit and pull it off his shoulders and down around his waist. It's not a vanity thing; he's not trying to show off his abs for the cameras. It's because the suits are ridiculously tight (they're designed to compress your body) and most swimmers want to unzip as soon as possible.
4. HE ALMOST NEVER READS ANYTHING WRITTEN ABOUT HIM: Some swimmers obsess over their own press. Write a harsh word about them and they'll let you know it. Phelps stopped reading stuff written about him long ago. Bowman, on the other hand, reads everything. "I'm a big Google guy," Bowman says. He'll print things out and show them to Phelps for motivational purposes, like comments by Ian Thorpe earlier this year that Phelps couldn't win eight gold medals. It was immediately hung in his locker in Ann Arbor. "That kind of stuff literally makes me insane," Phelps says. "It fires me up so much." He does, however, occasionally go on the Internet when he wants to find a picture of himself that he can e-mail to his mom. He can usually remember what he was thinking that exact moment it was taken. "I just like how intense I look," he says.
5. IT'S MOSTLY HIP HOP ON HIS IPOD BEFORE RACES, BUT NOT ALWAYS: Phelps has been listening to 'Lil Wayne this week, an American rapper from New Orleans. He's also a big fan of artists like Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and, of course, Jay-Z. But occasionally he'll mix things up and listen to some techno. Though it was often written that Phelps listened to Eminem's "Till I Collapse" before every race in Athens, Phelps says that's not true. "It's a different song for every meet," he says.
6. HE SPENDS A LOT OF HIS FREE TIME AT HOME PLAYING VIDEO GAMES: He plays a lot of Madden, but he also plays Halo pretty frequently as well. One week, he played so much Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf on his Nintendo Wii, he came to practice with a sore shoulder, and Bowman said if that ever happened again he was taking the video game console away. Video games are one of his favorite escapes, and if he wants to play them, no one is going to stop him. This is especially true of girlfriends or potential girlfriends. "If I want to play video games, I'm playing video games," he says. "If I want to sit around and watch TV, I'm watching TV. No one is changing my mind. I'm pretty easy to get along with, just don't tell me I can't do something."
7. HE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW MANY STROKES IT TAKES FOR HIM TO GET FROM ONE END OF THE POOL TO THE OTHER: When Phelps' goggles filled with water in the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday morning, he didn't freak out like most swimmers would have, even though he couldn't see more than a few meters in front of him. He simply knew how many strokes it would take to get to the wall, and was counting in his head. You can look at that two ways. Either he's an android who drills so often that he can break world records when he's on autopilot, or he's like Ludwig van Beethoven, a virtuoso so in tune with his art, he and was able to compose and perform music even after he went completely deaf.
8. HE LIKES TO FALL ASLEEP WITH THE TELEVISION ON: When you spend half your life in hotel rooms all around the world, the familiar sounds of ESPN or The Discovery Channel can provide some small measure of comfort. When he dreams, it's not of gold medals. It's often of numbers. Before the U.S. Olympic trials, the number 3:07 kept popping into his dreams. After he thought about it, he knew what it meant: He wanted to go 3:07 through the first 300 meters of the 400-meter individual medley. Split it like that, and he could close strong. It would be the perfect race. At trials, he was 3:08 through 300 meters. He set a world record, barely holding off Ryan Lochte. He was pleased, but he knew he could have gone faster.
His first race of the Beijing Olympics, he told Bowman he wanted it to be the last 400 IM he ever swam. Bowman agreed, reluctantly, but only if he set another world record.
Phelps did, blowing away the old mark, finishing in 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds. It looked, in every sense, like the perfect race. He didn't see the point in swimming it again.
He didn't mention it at the time, so it was easy to overlook, especially with all the buzz surrounding his first gold medal. But it's almost eerie looking back at his splits.
At the 300 meter mark, he was 3:07.05.