DALLAS — The king of Olympic swimming stands in the middle of a hotel ballroom wearing just a Speedo.
Shooting a TV commercial for NBC, Michael Phelps is surrounded by the trappings of his success. His hard-driving coach, Bob Bowman. Agents. Personal assistants to tousle his hair, pick lint off his face.
Phelps takes orders from a director. A camera on rails zooms in on Phelps' begoggled face, then back out again. Close. Far. Phelps, the solemn conqueror. Phelps, the alien traveler. Right when the job appears over — Phelps takes a step toward those assistants, standing at the edge of the shot — the director cuts in.
“One last thing,” he says with conviction. More quietly to Phelps: “I know, there's always one last thing, right?” The director summons the kiddie pool and broken mirrors.
Patient, pliant, Phelps barely moves a muscle.
Phelps vs. Phelps
He comes down from the mountains soon. Phelps trains in Colorado Springs — and its 6,000-foot altitude — to prepare for the Trials in Omaha, which start June 25, and the Olympics in London the following month. Phelps jokingly says he hates to train there but knows he must. This one last trip.
“I've had great success coming down from altitude,” Phelps said.
If it was part of the plan in 2008 — when he dominated the Trials and won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics — so it is now. He swims in the same pools where he set world records, reliving the strokes. He sleeps in a low-oxygen chamber to make his body work harder at night. The routine is familiar. Has been for more than a decade.
“Ever since 2001, I've literally been in the pool, racing, every single day, in every major competition,” Phelps said.
Other than those months after perfection in Beijing — when he let the real world trickle in to predictably human results — Phelps' life has been defined by his movement through chlorinated water. His 80-inch wingspan and flexible, size-14 feet are custom-created to win swim races. And he's won them. Sixteen Olympic medals, 14 golds, including the record eight in 2008.
Jordan in Game Six. DiMaggio in 1941. Owens in Berlin. Armstrong in France.
Phelps in Beijing.
“Michael's done wonderful things,” said swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who's won 11 Olympic medals of her own, yet adds: “I'm similar, but not the same.”
“Those that come and witness Michael Phelps at the Trials will be telling their grandkids about being able to see him compete,” said former gold medalist Gary Hall Jr.
“No matter who comes up, in some aspect, you're going to be in his shadow,” said Ryan Lochte, Phelps' newest, biggest, loudest rival.
This shadow engulfs even Phelps in 2012. He won't try for eight golds again. He comes to CenturyLink Center with little to prove — but his own air of invincibility to lose. And it's entirely possible Phelps will lose a race in Omaha. More than one, even. He's waffled on competing in the 400 individual medley, the purest test of versatility and endurance the sport has to offer, and the event he's owned for years. There is ambivalence in him.
“This is my 20th year in the sport,” said Phelps, 26. “I've known swimming — and that's it. I don't want to swim past the age of 30. I told Bob that years ago. It's just something I didn't want to do.”
No Olympics in 2016. No matter what his mom, Debbie, prefers.
“I'm looking forward to being able to be on the other side of the fence,” he said.
Michael Phelps is weary. There are reasons.
Moving a kiddie pool without spilling any water is an exacting test. The director asks two men in socks — the booties seemingly thin enough to be hose — to do just that with an added obstacle: Shards of glass are shifting around on the bottom of the pool. That's to re-create the shimmering effect of a big pool in a small space.
The men lift the pool off the ground by a few inches and shimmy it over to where Phelps stands. The director wants Phelps to perform his signature warm-up move, where he wraps his long arms around his body for flexibility. The director tries it first and hurts himself.
“I almost dislocated my shoulders,” he says.
Phelps' turn. His arms are so long that he can wrap them around his broad shoulders and slap his back. He does that a few times. At the end, he whips his arms to release the tension, his biceps rippling away from the bone, as if liquid metal, roiling. He is a bit shorter than the 6-foot-4 frame he's credited with, but he is the embodiment of length.
The camera moves toward Phelps again, the mirrors making water lines on his face. The director gets his shot and relieves Phelps — at least from this room. Assistants snap to and look him over.
In these 12 hours at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit, Phelps will see every inch of the cavernous Hotel Anatole in Dallas to be pushed, prodded and queried.
There are photo shoot rooms for Sports Illustrated, women's magazines, USA Today, newswire services and some newspapers. There is an hourlong interview in a main ballroom, and more intimate interviews elsewhere in the building. Fans to navigate. Until the very end, a small entourage will move as Phelps moves. The omnipresent Bowman is among them.
It's notable that Lochte, who stole the show away from Phelps at the 2011 World Championships, chose not to attend the summit; his agents arranged a private, one-man promotional tour. Phelps, the dutiful one, appears and makes the rounds. He stumps for the sport of swimming through interviews, his foundation and his cleverly named “IM” safety classes. He's opening swim schools on the East Coast.
He appears in Subway ads with Debbie, who got a book and Chico's clothing deal after the 2008 Olympics. For Speedo's “Unforgettable Swim” series he ambled at dawn in hometown Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In full butterfly stroke, he leaps face first onto a Hilton Garden Inn bed in Lake Forest, Ill. That's a Team USA ad.
Anything is possible as long as you want it and you'll work for it, Phelps says in the Speedo film. For sale: swim trunks and American dreams.
“I couldn't fathom what he has to do on a regular basis,” swimmer Nathan Adrian said. “What he has to experience as a person just trying to live his life. He's changed an entire sport. He's changed the Olympics a little bit. And that has to weigh so heavily on somebody.”
And Coughlin: “In this wonderful way, Michael's taken a lot of the attention. I'm still in awe in the fact that he came back to this sport after Beijing. Because that was perfect. That was perfect. He's under a tremendous amount of pressure, and I don't think I'd be able to handle that.”
In pursuit of passion
Unspoken by Coughlin, of course, is that Phelps has had his lapses in judgment. The January 2009 photo in the News of the World — a now-defunct British tabloid — showed Phelps smoking out of a bong at a University of South Carolina house party. USA Swimming gave Phelps — who apologized for the incident — a three-month suspension and cut off his training stipend. He played his share of poker — both online and in Las Vegas. He moved in faster circles. He enjoyed the spoils. While Bowman wanted Phelps to get right back into the water after Beijing, Phelps, then 23, rebelled.
“After 2008, I just didn't want to do it,” Phelps said of competitive swimming. “I knew deep down inside I wanted to, but I just didn't want to put in the work. There were times I'd come to practice and it didn't excite me. It wasn't interesting. I was going through the motions. 2009, that's how I was. 2010, that's how I was.
“It was really about me being able to find the passion again. If Bob could have given me that in 2009, I'm sure he would have. But that was something I had to find for myself.”
He cut down his individual swimming program at the 2009 World Championships, winning the 100- and 200-meter butterfly in addition to three relay races. Ditto at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. At the 2011 World Championships, he added the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley but lost both races to Lochte.
“He was just kind of rolling over me,” Phelps said.
Older than Phelps but seemingly younger at heart, Lochte took that moment — and just about every interview since — to declare the Phelps era over.
“It's my time,” he likes to say.
Said Phelps: “I've always been a person who lets my swimming do the talking. I'm not going to go out and say something to a competitor or say something about them. I've never done that. And I never will. That's just not how I am. I've always been able to jump in the water, and whoever is most prepared is going to win the race.”
Phelps concedes he wasn't as prepared as he could have been. He needed to go through the slump, the apathy, experience it on his own.
“I'm the kind of person that you can only tell so much,” he said.
In these three years, if Bowman wasn't seething at Phelps' nonchalant approach to training, he was close. At a May Grand Prix event in Charlotte, N.C., Bowman told reporters Phelps had been like a machine in Beijing. And now he was a man.
Bowman once had Phelps' undivided time. Now there's a foundation and more sponsor commitments. There's Phelps wanting to see more than the bottom of a pool, a giant meal on the table or the inside of a hotel.
“I've had to learn to control my emotions a little bit better — which is a good thing — and how to work with where we are to where we want to go,” Bowman said.
Swimmer Allison Schmitt, who trains with Phelps under Bowman, has seen the coach mellow more and yell less.
In Dallas, coach and swimmer shared an easy, joking rapport. Phelps does most of the talking now, but Bowman remains in the inner circle. They set goals so high, reaching them means victory.
Surely among them must be the Olympic record for 18 total medals set by Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina. Phelps, who met Latynina recently in New York — “We were joking around, through a translator” — is two short of tying Latynina. Even conservative estimates have Phelps eclipsing Latynina's mark with ease; he'll swim on enough medal-contending relays, and he's still the reigning world champ in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly.
“Michael's main competition is himself,” Bowman said.
Out of the water
After London — whether or not he repeats his undefeated streak in the Trials and Olympics — Phelps insists he'll walk away from competition. He wants to re-emerge on the public relations side of his sport — the ambassador, the middle-aged emeritus, the true believer in the gospel of swim — to elevate the sport to “baseball or hockey.”
“I don't know if it's possible, but I'll never know until I give it the full effort,” Phelps said. “And once I am out of the pool — in the real world — I'll be able to put more energy into it.”
He's already helped carve out a living for his fellow competitors, said Adrian, who added that swimmers' visibility had “increased exponentially” since Beijing. That's Phelps.
“I hope I don't take it for granted,” Adrian said. “I think I don't. But it's been pretty surreal.”
Every night of the Trials in Omaha will be televised live by NBC. That's Phelps.
Who would sit for a four-minute throwaway NBC interview with a grinning Ryan Seacrest in Colorado Springs on June 9, all to say he still wasn't sure what he'd be swimming at the Trials? Phelps.
Who would Coughlin say has the “patriotic” line of Speedo trunks? Phelps.
The same man who, when he finishes his interview with hundreds of reporters in Dallas, slips behind a curtain, walks through a maze of back hallways to even more photo booths tucked in yet another ballroom. In each stall, Phelps stands for five minutes, in any pose the photographer prefers, draped with flags, holding props, pulling the waistband of his Diesel underwear prominently above his sagging jeans. For an hour, Phelps and his management team, plus Bowman, navigate these tangled 100 feet of photo assignments in near-silence. Afterward, Phelps ducks out of one ballroom and into another — Bowman finally departing — where he stays for another 15 minutes.
With one agent, Phelps finally emerges to the hotel's giant atrium, outfitted with fountains, studded with expensive art. The showstopper is “Nebula,” a giant kinetic installation that looms above the swimmer. Stitched together with 10 miles of aircraft cable, 1,780 pulleys and one engine, it's meant to resemble a cluster of stars. But in sunlight it is a luminous, mechanical whale — 100 feet long and 50 feet wide — shimmying in the air. Like Phelps, it's a fragile, perfect machine. Phelps walks the length of it, veering into the bathroom, for two fans have spotted him. His agent beelines for the swank open bar. The girls — both in their 20s — sit next to the fountain and wait.
Phelps comes out, and they're immediately on him, like the children who often yell his name. Just a picture, they plead. Still walking, Phelps declines. “I can't, I have to go to something.” The girls left standing, Phelps moves into the bar, catches a Red Bull from his agent and hustles off.
One more thing. One last Trials.
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