Phelps, Bowman team up for yet another Olympics

Michael Phelps describes what it means to him to carry the American flag at Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony. (Childs Walker/Baltimore Sun video)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The greatest swimmer of all time rarely speaks in the singular when referencing his accomplishments or his plans for what's next.

It's always "Bob and I."


And so it was when Baltimore native Michael Phelps arrived here for his fifth — and likely final — Olympics with coach Bob Bowman at his side.

They speak in a comic give and take, honed through 20 years of public glory and private conflict. So Bowman was the first to roll his eyes Wednesday when Phelps said these are his "potential" final Olympics instead of his definitive last dance.


Just as surely, Bowman will be the key voice in Phelps' ear as the most-decorated Olympian in history prepares for his possible first race of these games Sunday in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

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

In his pre-Olympic remarks, Phelps made sure to thank "this guy up here for sticking with me."

Bowman was the first to see hints of transcendent talent in an 11-year-old Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He mapped out Phelps' conquest of the Olympic record book and coaxed him through years when the last thing he wanted to do was swim. Now they are coming to a "potential" end, still side by side.

It is as complex a coach-athlete relationship as you'll find in sports — a two-decade blend of father-son, antagonist-protagonist and mentor-pupil. Plenty of times during that span, Bowman and Phelps have barely wanted to speak to each other. And yet their loyalty is absolute. Each has made major life decisions to suit the other's needs.


"I have thought a lot about how unusual it is," said Bowman, coach of the U.S. men's swim team in Rio de Janeiro. "It's hard to describe, and I do wonder what it will be like to coach practices without him."

The medals hang around Phelps' neck, and his face is the one on billboards and television screens from Baltimore to Rio. He's the one who carried the American flag in Friday's opening ceremony. But to hear the 31-year-old tell it, he's always competed as part of a two-man team.

Just a few weeks ago at the Olympic trials, Phelps qualified for the Rio Games in each of his three individual events: the 200-meter butterfly (heats Monday afternoon; finals Tuesday night); 200-meter individual medley (heats Wednesday afternoon; finals Thursday night); and 100-meter butterfly (heats Thursday afternoon; finals Friday night). He might also swim in several relays, but those teams have not been announced.

Despite having qualified, Phelps was disappointed with his winning times, which Bowman deemed "mediocre."

He and Bowman had seemingly miscalculated his taper — the gradual easing of a swimmer's workouts as a major meet approaches. Phelps' legs had not felt fresh, especially when he swam two races in one evening.

But he did not sound rattled as he looked ahead five weeks to the Olympics, and not just because he's the most proven winner in the history of his sport. Rather, Phelps was confident Bowman would find the right tweaks to have him ready for Rio.

"I've trusted that man since I was 11 years old, and it's not going to stop today," he said. "I'm sure he's already come up with some kind of plan to figure out what we're going to do to move forward and, you know, whether that's tomorrow or the day after, I'm looking forward to that because I want to swim faster times than this to end my career."

The rest of the swimming world has learned to respect, and perhaps fear, the Phelps-Bowman formula for big events.

"In 16 years, how many times have they not figured it out?" said NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines. "Their batting average is pretty good."

Phelps is so attached to Bowman that he did not hesitate to move from Baltimore to Arizona last year when Bowman took a new job as the swimming coach at Arizona State University. He recognized that Bowman was excited to begin another phase in his coaching life.

"After I'm retired again, he still is very excited about coaching," Phelps said at the time. "He said it to me, and I was like, 'If it's something you want, I'll follow.'"

Bowman, 52, is a renaissance man who reads voraciously, delights in cooking fine cuisine and offers nuanced thoughts on classical music composition, which he studied in college.

But he's found his life's purpose in rising early every morning to cajole teenagers through grueling, unglamorous workouts.

He is enchanted with every detail, from the athlete's mind (he was a developmental psychology major at Florida State, where he swam) to the biomechanics of each stroke.

For all his restless thinking, his core philosophy — laid out in his recently released book "The Golden Rules" — is straightforward: Greatness comes from creating a long-range plan and working it relentlessly over days, weeks, months and years.

Bowman was a coach on the rise when Murray Stephens hired him at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 1996. The Mount Washington-based club was already an incubator of Olympians, but Bowman had little reason to think he had put himself in a once-in-a-lifetime situation.

Phelps was already an age-group wonder when Bowman started training him the next year. Phelps' sister Whitney was on the national team, so his talent wasn't a complete shock. But Bowman was the first to sit down with the middle-schooler's parents and lay out his Olympic future. He saw in the boy an uncommon blend of physical gifts and outsized ambition.

As bold a plan as Bowman set down, Phelps kept beating him to each mark. Which is not to say that any of it was easy. Phelps will be the first to tell you that he is a pain and always has been. He takes credit for Bowman's white hair.

Phelps was stubborn, attention-seeking and quick to anger. His screaming matches with Bowman, from the deck at meets to the parking lot at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, are essential bits of Phelps lore.

Even now, as they've mellowed, they address each other with liberal sarcasm.

Phelps and Bowman tested their relationship like never before in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Phelps had little desire to swim but felt he had to continue. Bowman was charged with dragging him to the pool every day. So they fought bitterly.

In 2011, Bowman went to Australia for three weeks just to get away from the toxic situation. He and Phelps avoided each other outside of practice.

"He hated it. I hated it. We all hated it," Bowman recalled.

Phelps reached a point where he felt physically ill at the sight of a pool.

Even in their lowest moments, however, Phelps the swimmer believed in Bowman the coach.

As Michael Phelps prepares to swim his last event of Olympic Trials tonight, his mind has already turned toward improving for the Rio Olympics.

They put on the best face they could for the London Games, where Phelps won four gold medals and pushed his career medal count to a record 22 — a record 18 of them gold.

"We were just trying to keep our private business private," Bowman said. "We pulled it off pretty well."

But neither swimmer nor coach harbored any thought of continuing.


Bowman enjoyed his more casual relationship with Phelps during the year Phelps spent away from the pool after the 2012 Olympics. It was a time of reflection for Bowman as he debated whether he wanted to return to full-time coaching. He felt relieved that he and Phelps could share laughs at a Ravens game without dreading the next morning's practice.


"The funny part about our relationship is that when we're not around a pool, we get along incredibly," Bowman said.

Because he remembered how stormy their interactions had gotten, he did not agree easily when Phelps said he wanted to return for one more Olympics. Bowman largely held his tongue as Phelps tried to achieve his old excellence on one-third as much work. And he fretted over the swimmer's emotional well-being as Phelps partied with a large circle of hangers-on.

Bowman was not surprised when Phelps was arrested for drunken driving in September 2014. What did surprise him was the person who emerged after 45 days of in-patient treatment.

His voice fills with genuine relief and happiness when he describes the Phelps of today — a self-aware adult and a rededicated athlete. He long worried that for all his work on Phelps the swimmer, he had not paid enough attention to Phelps the man.

But as he watched Phelps propose to his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Johnson, and then become a father, his fears ebbed.

Now, he gets to be Grandpa Bob, dining at Phelps' house in Arizona and cradling the swimmer's son, Boomer. Along with Phelps' longtime training partners, Allison Schmitt and Bel Air native Chase Kalisz, they form an unexpected sports family.

Swimmer Katie Ledecky could win multiple gold medals and become the face of the Rio Olympics.

In helping Phelps and Schmitt, who has battled depression, through wrenching personal struggles, Bowman has grown as a coach.

"At some point the straight line of improvement stops, and you have to do different things to manipulate that, and at some point they start growing up and there are things that they want to do and that may or may not fit into your swimming plans," Bowman said. "So I would say that it's a great joy for me to have gone through the growing-up process with both of them, and I'm certainly more empathetic than I was."

He is also more sentimental as he comes to the end of the relationships that have defined his professional life. Bowman teared up as he watched Phelps and Schmitt qualify for the Rio Games, something he hadn't done before.

"It is a little more emotional for me because this really is the last time we're going to be doing this," he said. "Last time, I didn't have that because it was more like, 'Thank God this is it!' But now I'm really enjoying the process."



Phelps' schedule

Michael Phelps will swim in three individual events in the Rio Olympics. He will likely be a part of several relays, but those teams have not yet been announced. Below is his individual schedule this week:

200-meter butterfly

Heat 3: 12:44 p.m. Monday

Semifinals begin: 10:10 p.m. Monday

Final: 9:28 p.m. Tuesday

200-meter individual medley

Heat 4: 1:24 p.m. Wednesday

Semifinals begin: 10:29 p.m. Wednesday

Final: 10:01 p.m. Thursday

100-meter butterfly

Heat 6: 1:31 p.m. Thursday

Semifinals begin: 10:34 p.m. Thursday

Final: 9:12 p.m. Friday