"I'm not a good vacationer," he says. "If I'm at Rehoboth, I can sit on the beach for an hour and love it. If I'm reading a book, I can be good for two.

"But the third hour, I'm like this," he says, glaring down at his watch.

He felt called back to the familiar lanes at Meadowbrook and a group of 10-12 swimmers who have set their sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The North Baltimore Aquatic Club crew includes old hands such as three-time Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt and Bel Air native Chase Kalisz and another American gold medalist, Conor Dwyer. There's also a 6-foot-8 Frenchman scything through the water at Meadowbrook. Bowman thought someone was pranking him when he got a direct message on Twitter from Yannick Agnel, who won two gold medals in London.

But it turned out a 12-year-old Agnel had been inspired by watching Bowman and Phelps at a European workout. And now the French star thought Bowman could coach him to a higher level. Bowman said he'd be in Colorado for a month, so maybe they could talk at the end of the summer.

Instead, Agnel said, "I'll be in Colorado on Saturday." Such seriousness is the surest way to Bowman's heart. He quickly agreed to coach Agnel.

Time away

Of course, the conversation with Bowman always comes back around to Phelps. And with a little distance, he's feeling expansive on the subject.

For the first time, they're pals, the kind who can hang out at Ravens games and trade funny texts about nothing in particular. They recently sat at Wit & Wisdom in Harbor East, sipping wine, looking out at the water and reflecting on past quarrels and triumphs.

They could never be so casual when it was Bowman's job to drive Phelps to unthinkable heights. "He knew there was a part of me that had an agenda," Bowman says. "There was a feeling of, 'What are you going to want from me next?'"

Phelps often made winning look so easy that it clouded how difficult his training had been — and how volatile the relationship between coach and pupil could become. Jon Urbanchek remained in Ann Arbor after Bowman replaced him as head coach at the University of Michigan, and he would hang around the pool during training. Soon enough, he had an active role in the day-to-day shaping of a champion.

"I felt like the grandfather," Urbanchek says. "Bob would be screaming at Michael and Michael would be screaming at Bob. I'm in the middle, telling Bob to go to his office and Michael to go to the locker room. Separate for 10 minutes, and maybe we can try this again."

That tension became heightened in the four years between Phelps' record-smashing performance in Beijing and his last ride in London.

Phelps simply did not want to train as hard or as often.

"Michael is difficult. Everybody knows that," Urbanchek says. "He can focus on training 65 days a year. The other 300, it was Bob working his magic."

Phelps, who as a young boy often infuriated Bowman by initiating games of tag with other swimmers when they were supposed to be warming up, views his changed approach to training as part of his own maturation.

"I started voicing my opinions a lot more," Phelps says. "I wasn't an 11- or 15-year-old kid. I took more of an active role and there were more disagreements. Bob wasn't accustomed to that. It got very tense. Just brutal battles."

Bowman feared Phelps would embarrass himself in London, where the viewing public would compare him to his own impossible standard.

"I could logically sit back and tell myself that nothing he did in London could take away from Beijing," Bowman says. "But I kept thinking that for him to fall off at the end would be a shame."

He grew so frustrated that in April 2011, he left Phelps for three weeks to bum around in Australia. He visited other coaches, Urbanchek says, seeking a way to break from the routine that had served him so well.