Michael Phelps apologizes for calling 15 minutes late.
“Boomer is in the process of making a pizza right now,” he explained, referring to his 2-year-old son. And as any young parent knows, a toddler’s priorities are the priorities of the household, even if Dad is a 23-time Olympic gold medalist.
What if, Phelps is asked, he could jump back a decade and describe this scene to his 23-year-old self? What would that fearfully driven world-beater have thought of this happy husband, father of two and mental health activist? Would he even have recognized this as a potential path forward?
“I would have been blown away,” the 33-year-old retired swimmer said from his home in Arizona. “I still have a group of friends who are all figuring things out. I have a buddy of mine and I said to him [recently], ‘Dude, if we had bet in 2004 who would be married first, I would’ve been like a million-to-one compared to you.’ It was like no shot.”
It’s been 10 years since Phelps authored his signature chapter by winning a record eight gold medals over a remarkable week in Beijing. When he takes stock, the passage of time strikes the former Rodgers Forge resident as “bizarre.”
“Because it’s like for me, thinking back to 2008 and where I was — just the good, bad and ugly of what I was back then — and now being able to come back and look at something that was so special and so meaningful, I see how much change can happen,” he said. “It’s maturity, it’s growing up, it’s going through life-changing experiences at a young age, good ones and very bad ones.”
For all the grand and touching moments that would follow, along with the missteps and times of impenetrable despair, the Beijing Olympics remain essential to Phelps’ story.
He eclipsed the great Mark Spitz and culminated his boyhood quest to do something unprecedented in the sport that had consumed his days and his dreams.
At the same time, he began a pivot toward adulthood that would see him fall out of love with the pool, reach suicidal depths and ultimately rediscover himself as a more complicated but more contented man.
Beyond those broader narrative strokes, Beijing offered terrific sporting theater. Phelps did not win his races clinically — he needed a teammate’s desperate relay comeback, a blind swim and an impossible surge to the wall to pull it off.
The meet of his life paid off a plan he and his coach, Bob Bowman, had devised over 12 years, starting when Phelps was in grade school.
It did not start as a quest to chase down Spitz’s record of seven gold medals won at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In fact, Bowman laughs recalling a news conference Phelps gave in 2001, when he’d just broken his first world record at age 15.
“Who is this Mark Spitz guy and why do they keep asking me about him?” the teenager asked.
Phelps did not care about surpassing Spitz, per se, something he said repeatedly in the runup to Beijing. His goal was more abstract, to push his sport to a new realm of possibility. It just so happened that if he completed his program as planned, the eight golds would provide a tasty hook for those telling the story.
‘What is possible?’
“I think what was driving me was just, it was almost this perfect opportunity to see what Michael could do, just from an intellectual standpoint. What is possible?” said Bowman, who served as Phelps’ motivator, father figure, friend and partner over a 20-year coaching relationship. “It wasn’t so much that if he didn’t get eight gold medals, it would be a failure. It was, how far could he push the limits of what could be done at one swim meet?”
In fact, Bowman, who apologized last month after it was reported that he sent inappropriate texts to former Olympic swimmer Caroline Burckle in 2011, remained skeptical even after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Phelps won six gold and two bronze medals. He figured the vagaries of relays and late-week fatigue would always make eight gold medals unlikely.
He didn’t truly change his tune until the 2007 world championships, where Phelps set five world records in perhaps the most perfect meet of his career.
At that point, he was a flawless swimming machine, hugely gifted but also shaped by thousands of hours of detailed work at pools in Mount Washington and later at the University of Michigan.
“They were at my feet in every race,” Phelps said of his rivals.
He would come to hate swimming much of the time as he prepared for his fourth Olympics in London. And with that loss of athletic motivation, cracks in his deeper sense of self began to manifest.
But in the runup to Beijing, he was so consumed by his youthful ambitions that he pushed back the demons that would later chase him.
“I think just the thought of attempting something so challenging that no one else had ever done it in history, that kind of covered everything else up and allowed my mind to free up,” he said. “I didn’t really take in anything of what was going [on] outside. I was just so focused on what I was doing in the pool. That had to engulf every ounce of energy and time to prepare for something like that.”
The first sign that Beijing would not be so easy came that winter, when Phelps broke his wrist in a freak accident. He and Bowman panicked at first, but a surgeon at Michigan, where he was training, offered two choices: have the bone fixed immediately and stay out of the pool for two weeks or wear a cast for six weeks.
He chose surgery and hit the water again as soon as his stitches healed.
Ten months later, with the world tuned in to his attempt at history, Phelps began his Olympics as planned, with a smashing victory in the 400-meter individual medley. His time of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds remains the fastest in history by more than a second.
‘Survive and advance’
But the whole quest almost ended on day two. The French men firmly believed they’d beat Phelps and his American teammates in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, and they did not mind saying so. With 50 meters to go and Phelps having already swum his leg, they appeared to be right.
But Phelps and everyone else watched in disbelief as American anchor Jason Lezak swam down world-record holder Alain Bernard with a mind-bending 46.06-second split.
Phelps says he wasn’t thinking about the eight gold medals at all when he bellowed at the sky and threw his arms out in triumph at the conclusion of Lezak’s swim.
It remains one of the most indelible images of his career.
Bowman, on the other hand, had the bigger picture firmly in mind. “Damn, this thing is already over,” he thought, as he watched the relay with national team coach Frank Busch. But then Busch tugged his arm as Lezak and Bernard reached the last 15 meters.
“Damn sure I was thinking about it,” Bowman said of the push for eight golds. “I was like, ‘We’re alive! Survive and advance.’ ”
On the third day, Phelps won his third gold medal and set another world record, by almost a second, in the 200-meter freestyle, the lone individual race he did not win in Athens.
But his next difficult moment lurked right around the corner, on day four.
Phelps owned the 200-meter butterfly through most of his career, right up until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He believed he was primed for a remarkable time in Beijing, one that no one would touch for generations. But as soon as he dived in, his goggles broke and filled with water. He had to swim essentially blind, relying on the sense of internal rhythm he’d built up over a lifetime.
“I thought he was either really tired or he was getting sick,” Bowman recalled. “Because I could tell he wasn’t moving. He should’ve killed those guys.”
Phelps still won comfortably and set yet another world record. But he ripped off his swim cap and flung his busted googles in anger after he touched the wall.
Not long ago, Phelps spoke at an event where the sponsors replayed that 200-meter final. They were surprised to see him shake his head in disappointment as he watched it unfold.
“It still haunts me,” he said, laughing at his perfectionism.
Though Phelps might not agree, NBC commentator and former Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines says the 200 butterfly stands out as the most remarkable swim from that remarkable week.
“I can’t begin to tell you how disorienting that is, to have your goggles fill with water like that,” Gaines said. “Any other mortal would have folded.”
Phelps picked up his fifth gold the same night in the 4x200-meter relay and his sixth two nights later in the 200 IM. But his closest call, the race even Bowman thought he’d lost, came on night seven in the 100-meter butterfly.
As the swimmers neared the wall, a tired Phelps appeared unlikely to catch Serbian Milorad Cavic, who’d said it would be better for the sport if Phelps fell short of his quest for eight gold medals. Viewers across the world thought Cavic had thwarted Phelps as they watched in real time. But then the results flashed on the screen and Phelps had somehow out-touched his rival, 50.58 seconds to 50.59.
By some combination of hard-earned habit and racing genius, Phelps took an extra half-stroke going into the wall to pass the fading Serbian.
He turned immediately to hug his longtime American rival, Ian Crocker, in the next lane. “God, you must have a guardian angel with you,” Crocker told him.
Bowman said the improbable finish was as much about Phelps’ work ethic as luck or some indefinable talent.
“I probably made him do swims over a hundred times because he didn’t touch the wall correctly,” he recalled. “So he didn’t make a conscious decision to do that, but he had done so many finishes with good form over such a long time, that he pulled out the right one, which was a half-stroke. He’s a super-special athlete, but he had practiced every scenario of those touches forever.”
Phelps finished his run for eight the next night in the 4x100-meter medley relay, a race that was closer than most probably remember.
‘He became a mythical being’
A decade later, he and Bowman still have not entirely wrapped their heads around what they accomplished.
“You do have to have all your stars aligned,” Phelps said. “Everything has to fall into place perfectly.”
Said Bowman: “I just think of Michael going through that week in Beijing, and it’s like every important lesson that I felt like I taught him for the 12 years before that, he used. And they all worked.”
The achievement made Phelps famous on a level he’d never conceived, with Spitz and others proclaiming him the greatest Olympian of all time.
For all the world records and unapproachable career totals, Gaines says the eight gold medals will always be the No. 1 hook for people celebrating Phelps.
“If he had won seven golds and one silver, would that have had the same ring?” Gaines said. “He’d still be the greatest Olympian of all time and in my biased opinion, the greatest athlete. But he wouldn’t be Michael Phelps. He became a mythical being that week.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, it would be nice if it could just be done now,’ ” Bowman said with a knowing laugh.
But they did not stop, of course. Phelps was just 23, and his identity and financial future, along with those of the people around him, were tied to Olympic swimming. The next eight years would bring an additional 12 medals and a sweet conclusion in Rio but also the darkest moments of his life, times when he did not like himself or know how to move forward.
“I had already done that one thing you always dream of as a kid. And I’m like, ‘Well, crap, now what do I do?’ ” Phelps recalled of his post-Beijing mindset.
But for all his struggles, which reached a public nadir in the wake of his 2014 drunken-driving arrest, Phelps says he would not alter his story. He sees 2-year-old Boomer running out of the bathroom with a huge grin on his face after a successful session of potty training, and he’s not sure he would have that if he hadn’t gone through the harder times.
Bowman also expresses amazement at Phelps’ road to domestic tranquility.
“How would we have ever thought we’d end up here?” the former taskmaster said. “And in a really good place? It’s quite extraordinary how the whole thing worked out.”
‘God, can’t you just turn it off?’
Phelps knows that as long as he’s reasonably young and healthy, people will ask about a possible comeback. He’s obsessed with riding his Peloton exercise bike, so he’s 195 pounds, same as at his last Olympics in Rio.
“It would be a lot easier for me to come back than it was for the last one, just because of me being in so much better shape now,” he said. “But I have zero goals to make me want to go through that grind again.”
Every time he feels the cold snap of the pool on an Arizona morning, he’s reminded that he’d much rather wake up, hug his kids and sit for a leisurely breakfast.
On the other hand, he thinks Bowman wants him to come back for a few races.
“He’ll text ‘100 free?’ ” Phelps said, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘Bob, shut up. Leave me alone.’ ”
“Did he say I want him to swim? I don’t think I really do,” Bowman said. “There’s a delicious irony in the fact that because he’s been on Peloton and takes care of himself really well, he’s in way better shape than he was when he came back in 2013. And I see him swim, you see the stroke and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s not really too bad.’ But no, I definitely do not want him to have to go through all that.”
That said, Phelps will never be a casual swimmer. When he goes to “splash around” at Arizona State, he often asks Bowman to time him. Or when his buddy, Australian Olympian Grant Hackett, visits, they invariably end up in pool, competing.
“There are very few times when I don’t try to get up and go something semi-quick,” Phelps said. “It’s just natural. It’s the only thing I know, I guess.”
Bowman recently tweeted out a list of all the 200-meter butterflys Phelps swam that were faster than his initial world record from 2001. As Phelps sat with his wife, Nicole, at the kitchen table, he recalled the setting and circumstances for each of those 33 races.
“God, can’t you just turn it off?” she’ll say to him.
After the Rio Olympics, he returned to Beijing with Boomer and Nicole to visit the Water Cube, where he won his eight golds. He stood behind the blocks where his goggles broke and where he out-touched Cavic.
“The biggest thing for me was just the emotion, because I was in such a different place eight years later,” he said. “I think it was just being able to give them that little piece of what I saw and lived for those seven days.”
He can’t wait to tell Boomer and his younger son, Beckett, the story once they’re old enough to understand. But he says he’s equally excited about his current work, using his broader story to raise awareness of depression and other mental health issues.
“The medals were a part of changing the sport. It was a steppingstone to changing the sport,” Phelps said. “I still have that journey, but I’m now trying to conquer a bigger, more powerful, more exciting mountain. Doing something that no one had ever done before in the pool, we’ve done it. So now it’s, ‘What’s next?’ ”
Childs Walker is a sports enterprise reporter. Since 2001, he has covered Carroll County politics, Anne Arundel County land use, the Orioles, higher education, the 9/11 attacks, a Super Bowl and more. He grew up in Baltimore, learning to put Old Bay on everything and be suspicious of Washington, attended Gilman and graduated from Emory University.