One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.
The late Doc Counsilman was a World War II pilot before he revolutionized swimming. He applied physics to the sport, but in addition to lift and drag and force vectors, Counsilman instructed his fellow coaches to consider dog breeding.
Recruit Labrador retrievers, not dachshunds. The big dog is a natural swimmer, quickly learning to pick up his hind feet and swim with the front. The little one is just as likely to drown.
Is that ability innate? Is it a product of body type?
Michael Phelps has been working his mom for a pet since last summer. He wants to bring home an English bulldog. That breed needs less exercise, but is it a coincidence that the most versatile swimmer in history's first wish was for a Labrador retriever?
Is Phelps more hydrodynamic than his competitors? Is he a stranger to oxygen debt because his training has stressed aerobic conditioning or because he has found a more efficient way to swim? What's more important, his body or the way he uses it?
Sport is as much art as it is science. Distinguishing Phelps' acquired skills from his physical tools opens an endless debate about nature vs. nurture and underscores the folly of attempting to wrap his gifts in separate boxes.
Phelps has become so efficient, his visits to a physical therapist have gone from twice a week to twice a year, but the more forceful he becomes in the water, the wobblier he gets on land. A multi-sport athlete as a boy, he can still knock a baseball over a fence, but Phelps wouldn't want to be timed going around the bases.
Phelps took a physics course at Towson High, but for all he knows, Bernoulli was a champion backstroker from Belgium and Newton makes a mean fig cookie. The physiologists can measure his wingspan, quantify his ability to process energy and provide 15 statistical parameters per lap per race, but the only observation that matters is this: Phelps can manipulate water like no human since Moses.
- "We will never be able to design more efficient swimmers." -- Cecil Colwin
- A venerable coach and great thinker about swimming, Colwin takes an annual spring break from his home in Ottawa to watch Phelps train with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He notes Phelps is a blend of body types, a mix of ectomorph and mesomorph, the former long and lean, the latter thicker and more muscular. Phelps stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 195 pounds, with the broad shoulders and narrow waist that are fairly common around a pool. All things being equal, he needs fewer strokes than the average man to cover a 50-meter pool, but Phelps isn't as tall as Tom Malchow (6-6), the previous world-record holder in the 200 butterfly, and his nearly 6-7 wingspan doesn't approach the 6-11 reach of Michael Gross, a German who owned the event for much of the 1980s. His build is reminiscent of Mike Barrowman, a Montgomery County native who raised the bar in the 200 breaststroke during the 1990s. Swimmers are always looking to improve their core strength, and Phelps has a higher baseline there. An ancient Roman architect inspired Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of a man of perfect symmetry, and the best-seller The Da Vinci Code had readers measuring themselves. Divide your height by the distance from the top of your navel to the bottom of your feet. Most likely the quotient will be 1.618, what's called the "divine proportion," a number found throughout nature. In Phelps' case, a photo study shows that quotient to be more than 1.7. He buys pants with a 34 waist and 32 length, and his inseam is shorter than that of Hicham El Guerrouj, the world-record holder in the mile. The Moroccan stands a shade over 5-9, but is all legs. Phelps has relatively short legs and a long trunk, an advantage in the water. "What does Murray Stephens say?" said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, quoting the founder of the NBAC. "The more wet surface, the faster the boat. The fastest sailboats are long and thin. Same with swimmers." One in five children can hyper-extend a body joint. Four months before his 19th birthday, Phelps remains double-jointed in his elbows, knees and ankles, which allows him to explore positions few other swimmers can. His shoe size is 14, and those feet act like giant flippers. That body has been pushed. The NBAC's Senior Performance Group does not observe the Sabbath. Bowman wants Phelps and his other top swimmers to train 365 days a year, with two practices 40 percent of those days. Over the past four years, Phelps might have gotten in six months more work than a college swimmer. Because the momentum of his career hasn't been disrupted, he is adept at maintaining momentum in the pool. Phelps still holds a national age-group record in the 10-and-under category, so he wasn't a blank slate when Bowman began to coach him in 1997. He had followed his two older sisters to the NBAC, where he found an outlet for the energy that frustrated some of his schoolteachers. Debbie Phelps, his mother, recalled one who said her son "will never be able to focus on a thing in his life." Prescribed Ritalin for his attention deficit, Phelps weaned himself from it in the sixth grade. One teacher's hyperactivity can be a coach's work ethic. Phelps' ability to master and monitor his breathing and stroke is not the sign of a wandering mind.
- "The swimmer's body changes as he trains." -- Counsilman
- "With training," Bowman said, "prepubescent children can significantly impact their heart and lung size, more substantially than they can after puberty. The larger the heart and lungs, the bigger the engine." Phelps' has been continually upgraded. The active child turned professional at 16, forfeiting his NCAA eligibility but avoiding the Animal House aspects of college swimming. "The best thing Michael ever did was not go to college," said John Urbanchek, the Michigan coach who developed Malchow and Tom Dolan, individual gold medalists at the 2000 Olympics. "The typical college kid has a couple of beers, they have girlfriends, sleepovers, a lot of distractions." Much has been made of Phelps being a great closer, and that is by design. In the early stages of a race, others work harder. Because his energy reserves are greater, his speed decreases at a slower rate, and he picks the field off. Phelps has piled 200 weeks of some 43 miles per week on to the foundation that was poured in his childhood. He has never taken a VO2 Max -- cyclist Lance Armstrong set records on the test, which gauges the maximum amount of oxygen the lungs can burn -- but Phelps' ability to produce energy is legendary. Lactate is to blood what lactic acid is to the muscles. The higher the measurement, the greater the oxygen deficit. After Phelps scared the world record in the 200 backstroke last month, his lactate reading was 8.0 millimoles per liter of blood. That's extremely high for him, but after a taxing race against Phelps last summer, Baltimore native and Olympic gold medalist Tom Hannan had a reading of 17.0. "The harder you work, the more lactate you produce," said Genadijus Sokolovas, the director of physiology for USA Swimming. "Michael is the only one who can set a world record with very small lactate in the blood. He's unique in several ways. On land, he's one of the weakest swimmers we've ever measured." Compared to what? "How strong would an Olympic weightlifter be if we tested him in the water?" said Bowman, illustrating the sport's search for meaningful physiological data. "I'm not saying some of this research isn't valuable, but I don't know how an isokinetic contraction on a bench relates to how strong you are in the water. Michael could train for strength on land, but how relevant is that?" Many elite swimmers incorporate weight training and running into their regimen. Phelps has never done the first, and the second was cut from his program last summer because of knee pain. Phelps first noticed he was physically superior to some of his peers on a lacrosse field, but he would have trouble moving around one today. Four million yards of swimming per year has maintained flexibility in his joints, but that laxity could cause his ankles or knees to buckle on a fast break. "It's a fine line," said Scott Heinlein, his physical therapist. "You get fatigued, you cheat in a stroke and maybe that leads to injury. Four years ago, I was seeing Michael twice a week for shoulder pain. Now, he might go six months between visits. We changed some things, and he made some adjustments. I don't have a swimming background, but it's obvious that he knows how he is supposed to feel in the water."
- "Performance accomplished with the least waste of effort produces the highest standard of skill." -- Colwin
- Phelps' flexibility is most visible on the blocks, after he hunches over and awaits the horn of the starter. A few competitors shake their arms of nervous energy. The guy in Lane 4 -- reserved for the fastest qualifier -- raises his rapidly but fluidly above his spine until the back of his hands meet with a "WHAP!" that is audible throughout the natatorium. Phelps repeats the motion, calling to mind a bird flapping its wings. The effect is like Tiger Woods pumping his fist at Augusta National on a Sunday afternoon. You are racing for second. I can do things you can't. Swimming is like golf in several regards. Once muscles pass a certain tension, the stroke deteriorates. Woods has the power to drive the ball 340 yards and the touch to sink a breaking 25-footer in a playoff. Phelps has the range to rule in disparate events, and the feel to make it appear effortless. What works for Woods doesn't for Jim Furyk, the U.S. Open champion who has a loop at the top of his swing. Before Phelps came along, Tom Dolan was the master of the 400 individual medley, swimming's supreme test. Dolan wasn't a great stroke technician, but no one trained harder. Coaches can quibble about Phelps' chin being too high on his butterfly, but different bodies find different ways to move water. Phelps may not remember Newton's Third Law of Motion (for every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction) or Bernoulli's Principle, which explains the physics behind flight. Coaches can't agree about their relevance in the science of propulsion, but Phelps can picture how the tilt of a wing deflects the pressure above and below it and how his pulling and then pushing of water makes him go. "I'm the wrong person to talk about this," said Phelps, who communicates with Bowman in a series of hand signals and whistles that only the two understand. "For me to put it into words, I just can't do it. I'm always refining it, but I've been working with the same basic motions for over 10 years now. The other day, we were working on the roll of my hips in freestyle. I told Bob, the longer my stroke, the easier everything felt." Bowman talks about Phelps having "soft" hands, and still water runs deep, with titles and world records. That sensitivity is heightened nearly every day. The instructional video on butterfly technique that Phelps and Bowman made in 2002? One segment is obsolete. The dolphin kick, what Bowman calls the body dolphin, requires extreme coordination. Instead of fluttering alternately, the feet move in unison, creating a whipping action that is, well, dolphin-like. Phelps wasn't advanced enough to use it at the 2000 Olympics. Now it's integral to his butterfly, and his turns in backstroke and freestyle. Without the body dolphin off the final wall at the 2002 Summer Nationals, he wouldn't have caught Erik Vendt and posted his first world record in the 400 IM. Phelps used a standard double kick then, but he may be taking the technique to the next level. "I haven't had this proven yet, but Michael actually has an extra [third] kicking action when he's really doing the butterfly," Bowman said. "He only does it when he's going really fast." As billions in golf merchandise sales make that sport as analyzed as any, swimming lags on the research front. Today in New York, Speedo will unveil a new line of high-performance suits. The research and development end had Phelps' stroke and specifications measured in a flume in New Zealand. What was learned about his expertise there? "When you watch Michael swim underwater, there are virtually no bubbles around the hand," said Stu Isaac, a senior vice president for Speedo. "Bubbles do nothing but make you lose power. You can create a greater surface area for the size of the hand and use power to direct the force of water, but that's almost impossible to teach and measure. We'd go crazy if we really tried to break it down by computer." Apply all of the morphology and physiology and kinesiology you want. Then go back to Colwin, who resorts to the supernatural to describe Phelps. "The way Michael slips through the water," Colwin said, "it's ghost-like."