Michael Phelps: Finally at peace with swimming, himself

What will make the Rio Olympics a success for Michael Phelps? A happy ending.

Michael Phelps stopped speaking and looked away, emotion constricting his vocal cords as he considered the jagged path that led him to this point.

He had endured hundreds of these post-race talks over a 16-year career as an Olympic swimmer, usually sticking to dissections of sluggish turns or overextended finishes.

But moments earlier, Phelps had held up five fingers in the pool, recognizing that he'd officially qualified for a fifth straight Olympics. In a few minutes, he would kiss his fiancee and their 8-week-old son, who'd slept happily through Daddy's latest triumph.

During that brief pause, all of it seemed to hammer him — the years when he fell out of love with the sport he'd vowed to elevate, the weeks of brutal self-examination after his 2014 arrest for drunken driving, the joy and purpose he'd found in a new family, his rekindled zeal for swimming.

The greatest swimmer in the world had remade himself, and the Olympics ahead would be a chance to celebrate both the path he'd traveled and the one in front of him.

If Phelps, 31, seizes four or five more medals in Rio de Janeiro, he'd put his career count so far out of reach it would become one of those sports records we just laugh at, the Olympic equivalent of Cy Young's 511 wins or Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.

But if he's even thought of that, he never mentions it. Instead, he is adamant that what he's after is simple — a happy ending.

"I don't know how he's going to do this summer," said Bob Bowman, his coach of 20 years. "But I do know that when he leaves swimming this time, he will leave loving it. And that's all he or I wanted."

London in 2012 was supposed to be his perfect finale. It was the story everyone, including Phelps, peddled at the time. He set the career mark for total medals, thanked a teary-eyed Bowman for helping him achieve his wildest ambitions and won his last race.

Then he was off to live a fantasy life — traveling the world, dating beautiful women, playing high-stakes poker, watching his beloved Ravens from a private suite. For the first time in his life, he could worry more about his putting stroke than his freestyle turns.

But it was, in many ways, a lie.

Actually, Phelps loathed swimming in the years leading up to the 2012 Olympics.

He had set the outlandish goal of winning eight gold medals at one Olympics, and when he achieved the ambition to which he'd devoted so much of his life, there was no mountain left to conquer.

But Phelps was still an athlete in his physical prime and still the face of the sport he'd vowed to change. He could not walk away. Bowman compared him to the banks at the heart of the recession that gripped the United States at the same time — too big to fail.

So Phelps rebelled in the ways he could. He refused to attend practice at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington for days at a time, leading to screaming matches with Bowman, who was convinced an undertrained Phelps might embarrass himself on the world stage. He slapped on a plastic smile at meets and delivered palatable sound bites about swimming for the pure joy of it. But he was a guy wearing an old suit — he knew it no longer fit even if it looked fine to a stranger's eye.

"I didn't care," he said, looking back on that time. "I wanted nothing to do with the water. Nothing."

There was another facet to his angst.

In 2009, someone sold a photo of Phelps inhaling from a bong at what he believed was a private party. It was a turning point in his relationship with fame, causing him to become notably more wary.

"He didn't trust anybody after that, for a long time," Bowman recalled.

Remember, Phelps never aspired to be the next Mark Spitz or Matt Biondi. When he scrawled out his goals in red pen and plastered them on his bedroom wall in Rodgers Forge, his plan was to become the Michael Jordan of swimming, a guy who'd re-draw the map of what was possible.

What he did not contemplate was the price of such greatness. An 11-year-old kid couldn't possibly grasp that Jordan's life was no longer his own, that everything from the NBA great's gambling to his father's murder had become public fodder.

Bowman likes to tell a story about Phelps when he was 19 and they had just moved to train at the University of Michigan. Though he was around thousands of people his own age, Phelps felt out of sorts, acutely aware that he was not a normal teen. He shared his anxiety one day in Bowman's office.

"Michael, you're never going to be normal, no matter where you go," Bowman told him.

But it was a reality he chafed at over the years as reporters poked into his romantic life or his strained relationship with his father, Fred. The hubbub over the bong photo crystallized his discomfort.

So Phelps was neither a particularly happy guy nor a particularly dedicated swimmer when he showed up in 2012 for what was supposed to be his final Olympics.

It's a testament to his greatness that he won four gold and two silver medals — a brilliant career for virtually anyone else — coasting on muscle memory from earlier years. Sure, the cracks showed a little when he finished fourth in the punishing 400-meter individual medley. But the world celebrated his joyous finale, and he went along with it.

Phelps told reporters he was eager to try a life away from the pool. That part was true. He could not fathom doing any of it again.

"I never thought there would be another chapter," Bowman said

Disbelief at first

Bowman too was emotionally exhausted after preparing Phelps for London, and he also took a lengthy break from the sport, bumming around his beach house in Rehoboth, honing his cooking skills and deepening his involvement in horse racing. He and Phelps saw each other at Ravens games but kept their interactions light and fun.

When Phelps asked him to dinner at Wit & Wisdom, overlooking the Inner Harbor, in August 2013, Bowman did not know what to expect. He was downright skeptical when Phelps said he wanted to come back.

He wondered if Phelps simply did not know what else to do with his life.

But Phelps insisted he wanted to rediscover the fun in swimming and that he was doing it only for himself.

Thus began the strange first phase of his comeback, a year when he tried to have it both ways — training 1/3 as much as he did in his prime but still hoping to win races. This approach produced erratic results. He might look like the best in the world in morning preliminaries, then swim a clunker in the evening final.

"I was shocked how poorly he swam when he came back," Bowman said. "He couldn't swim. I think that made it not quite as fun as he thought it might be."

Phelps needs victories like most people need food, so he grew increasingly dissatisfied. His agitation seemed to peak at the Phillips 66 Nationals in August 2014, where he didn't win a single event. In post-race interviews, he bounced between dismissing the importance of the meet and lacerating himself for his lax work ethic.

"I hate this," he said after one defeat.

Bowman had chosen not to press the issue, allowing Phelps to reach his own realizations about where he stood. Reality hit him hard. Half-in would not be good enough.

But before he would be able to re-dedicate himself as a swimmer, he would hit a new low.

The bleakest time

Phelps' heart sank when he saw the police lights flashing behind him as he sped home — 84 mph in a 45-mph zone — in the early hours of Sept. 30, 2014.

He knew he'd fail a sobriety test, and he knew he'd invited the world to crash down on him.

Bowman was not surprised when he heard Phelps had been arrested for driving under the influence after a night of gambling and drinking at the Horseshoe Baltimore. He had been dreading that or something worse.

"He had this rather large circle of people around him that I didn't think were particularly good influences," Bowman said. "He had isolated himself from me, his mother, the people who had been his support team. So he was sort of out there by himself."

It was instructive that Phelps, who would eventually plead guilty to DUI and be charged with 18 months' supervised probation, had been partying on a Monday night without any close friends by his side.

Here was a guy who'd grown up in the bosom of an adoring family, whose attention was coveted by millions, who at the very least could have afforded a bodyguard to protect him. And yet he was alone.

Phelps has described the five days between his arrest and his entry into the Meadows rehabilitation center in Arizona as the bleakest time in his life. He has not said he was suicidal, but he has walked right up to that line.

He hardly left his room during his first few days in Arizona.

Bowman was skeptical when Phelps invited him to visit. He thought rehabilitation might be just one more grim obligation in the swimmer's life. But Phelps surprised him. He was devouring books. He had learned personal details about his fellow patients. He seemed determined to reckon with the most uncomfortable aspects of his past.

That included inviting his father to Arizona. They'd barely spoken for long stretches of Phelps' adulthood.

"Being able to rebuild a friendship with my father, that's something I've always wanted," Phelps would say later. "We're starting from scratch."

He had also mended his relationship with Nicole Johnson, the former beauty queen he'd always described to friends as the true love of his life. Since his 45-day rehabilitation ended, he has rarely appeared in public without her nearby.

The total picture convinced Bowman he was dealing with a different man.

"I just had no doubt he had changed in a way that was really meaningful," he said.

Phelps also nagged his coach for suggestions on how to stay in shape in the little exercise pool at the Meadows.

He trained at Meadowbrook the day he returned to Baltimore. When he made his first extended public remarks about rehabilitation, at his comeback meet in Mesa, Ariz., following a six-month suspension from USA Swimming, he spoke as someone who had embraced therapy.

"I like myself for who I am," he said.

'A real smile'

Phelps' brow furrowed and his smile seemed far away when he arrived at Meadowbrook one afternoon in late May 2015. He was there to promote water safety — one of his foundation's chief causes — to a Boys and Girls Club from Baltimore.

As the grade-schoolers stared up at him with wide eyes, he told his story — the Olympic goals on his bedroom wall, the toil to make them reality. Then he bobbed beside them as they practiced a few tentative strokes in the same pool where Phelps learned. Gradually, the lines of worry vanished from his face.

"I was in a bad mood when I came in," he said. "As soon as I'm around kids, it puts a smile on my face, and it's a real smile. It's the best, because they're all so happy. They're all so excited. They were a little nervous in the beginning, but they warmed up, and they trusted us. They were OK and they were safe."

The scene foreshadowed the joy that would become so common on Phelps' face once his own son, Boomer, was born on May 5, 2016.

But as a swimmer, his confidence was shaky. Phelps was training as hard as he had in at least seven years as he prepared to move to Arizona, where Bowman had accepted a job as head coach at Arizona State. His results did not match his efforts.

"I'm super-frustrated," he said as the kids chirped in the background. When he swam 200-meter races, he felt like he was carrying a piano on his back the last 75 meters. His legs felt out of sync with his upper body.

It's easy to forget because we've watched him for so long and because we know his human foibles, but Phelps is the rarest of athletes, on the same level as a LeBron James or a Tiger Woods.

You start with the ideal swimmer's body — short legs (32-inch inseam), freakishly long torso, boat-paddle feet and the wingspan of an NBA power forward. You add an uncanny ease in the water. Then you add the way he trained his body from the age of 7 to replenish oxygen immediately after a strenuous race. Top it off with the imagination to conceive feats no one else would attempt and the will to grind those aspirations into reality day after day, week after week, year after year.

In his best races — say at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne — a prime Michael Phelps was untouchable. Even if he wasn't at his best — if he swam with a broken wrist or his goggles filled with water or he needed to conjure an improbable lunge to the wall — he seemed unbeatable when the stakes were highest.

But Phelps had not felt like that version of himself for quite some time. Given how many races he'd won, did he still need to deliver a reassuring performance?

"I'd like to," he said, laughing. "It would show me that what we're doing is actually working."

About two months later, Phelps mounted his starting block for the 200 butterfly final at Phillips 66 Nationals in San Antonio. He was there because he'd been removed from the World Championship team as punishment for his DUI arrest.

This was the meet he and Bowman had built to for months, and they weren't sure what to expect.

After Phelps hit the wall in 1 minute, 52.94 seconds, his best time since 2009 and the best in the world for 2015, he slammed his right hand into the water and blew out a celebratory spray like some great whale. He was back.

His subsequent swims in the 100 butterfly and the 200 individual medley only confirmed it.

"You've never seen him swim like this," Bowman texted to a reporter who had not covered Phelps in his prime.

"That was my favorite thing," the coach said recently. "Just seeing the light bulb come on for him to say, 'Wow, I can still do this.'"

Embracing work

Seven months after San Antonio, Phelps mounted a stage at Under Armour's Baltimore headquarters to describe how he'd rebuilt his body in preparation to swim a fifth Olympics at age 31.

He had embraced a level of work he would have sneered at in 2012.

Phelps started by referencing his friend, Ray Lewis, who told him that to mitigate the effects of aging, he'd need to get his body fresh for work every morning.

He rarely stays up past 10 p.m. now and wears monitors to determine how deeply he's sleeping. He charts every bit of food he eats and has reduced his body fat from 13 percent in London to 5 percent now. He subjects his body to "cupping," a form of therapy in which high-pressure suction cups are attached to the skin to promote better blood flow.

Even on Sundays, he pesters his coaches with text messages, asking, "Are we hitting everything we need to hit?"

"What he's done this last year and a half is remarkable," said Phelps' longtime conditioning coach, Keenan Robinson, perhaps the most overlooked of his close advisers. "The gift is nothing if the artist doesn't work it. But he's completely engaged in wanting to know, 'Why are we doing this? How is this going to help me?'"

Moments later, Phelps showed off the rippling upper body he has sculpted, swinging along a succession of hanging metal bars as Robinson urged, "Come on Mike! Let's go buddy."

In the water, Phelps is nearly as powerful as ever over short distances. The complication comes when he has to swim multiple races in quick succession, something he did easily at 19 or 23. After swimming twice in less than 30 minutes on his busiest day at Olympic Trials, he gasped for air during his post-race interview.

There's only so much he can do about that; 31 is 31, an age when most elite swimmers have already retired.

But Phelps wears his years well in other settings.

He flew back to Baltimore in April to help raise money for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and as he took the stage in a dark gray suit, he also took over as master of ceremonies for a press conference with his fellow Olympic hopefuls.

Reporters did not have questions for a few of his teammates, but Phelps quickly filled awkward silences with kind words about each of the younger swimmers.

He would never have been comfortable playing such a role four or eight years earlier.

"I think we're seeing a side of him grow that enjoys helping other people reach their goals," Bowman said. "I don't think he gave one rat's ass about that for a long time."

The crew included his nuclear swimming family of Chase Kalisz, who grew up tagging behind Phelps at Meadowbrook, and Allison Schmitt, his steadfast training partner of more than a decade.

"The three amigos," NBAC coach Erik Posegay calls them.

Schmitt has lived with Phelps in Arizona, cracking him up each morning as they drive to Bowman's practices and getting Boomer's poop on her shirt as she plays auntie. Phelps helped her through her own dark patch as she wrestled with depression.

"I can read her like an open book," Phelps said at the gala.

"He can," Schmitt agreed.

Phelps isn't exactly a sweetheart in practice, especially with Kalisz, the de facto little brother who's spent years trying to beat him. It's another way in which Phelps takes after his original idol, Jordan.

"I don't sugarcoat anything," he said, knowing he'll have to modulate his demeanor as he transitions into coaching with Bowman next year at Arizona State.

But as Phelps plays big brother to his teammates, he seems as comfortable in his skin as he claims to be.

They, in turn, seem tickled to see him so content with Johnson, whom he plans to marry just after the Olympics, and with Boomer.

"When he's holding Boomer, you see how genuinely happy he is," Kalisz said. "No one deserves that more."

Bowman has been fascinated to watch Phelps thrive in settings where Boomer, and not he, is the center of attention. He no longer worries that Phelps will lack an organizing purpose once he's done swimming.

"That's the piece he has now," he said. "And he didn't have that after Beijing or London. Regardless of how he swims, he will be at peace. And that's a great comfort to me."

Whenever Phelps looks ahead to the end of his swimming career — racing at him fast, now — he's driven by a similar yearning for contentment.

He does not want to look back and wonder: "What if I had done this better?"

He never found that peace of mind after London.

Now? It's so close he can almost touch it.



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