Sports REDIRECT SECTION: sports olympics

Growth of Bowman on a par with star's

One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

When he swam in the 2000 Olympics, Michael Phelps was 15, the youngest American to earn a trip to Sydney, Australia.

Now that Phelps is 18 and a young man atop his sport, does he have any more input into his training routine?

"Nope," Phelps said.

That job belongs to his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman, a bespectacled 38-year-old who has applied a rigorous regimen to a rare talent.

Phelps' path at the 2004 Athens Olympics could include a run at the record seven Olympic gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972.

After receiving some editions of Sports Illustrated from that year that chronicled Spitz's exploits, Bowman read them, but didn't pass them along to Phelps. Avoid the extraneous. Schedule the vital, such as having Phelps' wisdom teeth removed so that they aren't an issue during the Olympic year.

A sign reading "Beware of Bob" used to greet visitors to Bowman's office, but the man who steers Phelps is considerably mellower than the one who used to bounce from job to job. Bowman needed experience to grasp the dynamics at the sport's grass-roots clubs, where not all have global aspirations.

"It took me a while to realize that parents were part of the equation and that I wasn't the sole owner of knowledge in the universe," Bowman said. "After I figured that out, that maybe I didn't know absolutely everything, it got a lot easier."

Developing a prodigy requires a touch both delicate and demanding, and Bowman's college major, child psychology, was one of the fortuitous choices that linked him to Phelps. He is a taskmaster, albeit bolstered by the belief that he'll never be as hard on his swimmers as he was on himself.

Phelps was in diapers in spring 1986 when Bowman passed on his final year of swimming eligibility at Florida State. Having made a mess of his own competitive mind, he was eager to move on to coaching.

Given a month's worth of reading on management, motivation and technique by a coach, Bowman sped through the material in a single all-nighter.

"I really loved swimming as a sport, and I loved the people in it, but I overdid the whole cognitive analysis thing, and that hurt my swimming," Bowman said. "I came from a club [in Columbia, S.C.] that stressed a hard work ethic. I should have trained as a sprinter when I got to college, but I insisted on working with the milers. More work means better, right? I should have rested more."

By 1996, Phelps was on the U.S. swim map. Bowman had been all over it, taking jobs in Tallahassee, Fla.; Cincinnati; Las Vegas; Cincinnati again; Northern California; Birmingham, Ala., and Northern California again. He spent the summer of 1992 in Baltimore, babysitting some NBAC talent while head coach Murray Stephens was at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

"Bob had never spent more than two years in one place," said Stephens, the NBAC co-founder who developed three Olympic gold medalists and is back coaching after a two-year hiatus. "It's fairly easy to see why. Bob had to learn how to modulate some of his energy."

Under the guidance of Tom Himes, who now coaches for Retriever Aquatics, another club in Baltimore, Phelps was already an age-group sensation and butterfly ace when Bowman took a job with the NBAC in 1996.

A routine shuffling of assignments a year later put Bowman in charge of the Senior Performance Group - swimmers who share the dream of going to the Olympics. That group included Phelps, and the two have been together since.

Technically, Bowman improved Phelps' freestyle technique. Tactically, he got his parents, Fred and Debbie, to prepare for big things, a touchy task a year after their daughter, Whitney, had fallen short of qualifying for the Atlanta Olympics.

"Bob talked to Fred and myself about [the Olympics in] 2012 when Michael was 11," Debbie Phelps said. "He's a visionary who sees talent in kids, knows what buttons to push and understands that this is a collaboration."

Phelps, a Rodgers Forge resident, was a minor who needed chaperoning, so Bowman had a coach's pass at the 2000 Olympics. Seven months later, Phelps became the youngest male to set a world record in a stopwatch sport, which led Bowman to be named USA Swimming's Coach of the Year in 2001.

In Barcelona at last month's world championships, Phelps became the first to set world records in different events on the same day, then the first of either gender to set five world records in one meet.

That made Bowman the most popular coach in Barcelona. But he isn't some swimming wonk with a whistle seemingly implanted around his neck.

An eclectic selection lines the bookshelf in Bowman's office at the Meadowbrook Fitness and Aquatic Center, where the NBAC is based. The titles include From Childhood to Champion Athlete, biographies of coaches from football's Vince Lombardi to swimming's Doc Counsilman and the 2001 edition of the Maryland Horse Directory.

A bachelor, Bowman has invested part of his earnings from Meadowbrook and Speedo - he's among the dozens on the company's coaching advisory staff - into the horse trade.

Bowman is partners with Frank Morgan, an NBAC parent who is one of Phelps' attorneys, and Bonita Farms in the ownership of six thoroughbreds.

"He's a good student of genetics, and he wants to do things the right way," said Bill Boniface, the general partner at the 400-acre Bonita Farms in Darlington. "Breed the horse, train the horse, take it the whole way. He's meticulous."

There is another winter ahead of 50-mile weeks - seven miles a day of pool training - and Bowman must keep it all fresh for Phelps, a professional who is bidding farewell to childhood friends headed off to college.

The young man has followed the same post-travel workout for four years, but there will always be motivational twists - such as the bet that made Bowman shave his head after Phelps' eighth world record of the year.

"You add things to the training program, take away things, bring things back," Bowman said. "In some regards, I just try to make it look different. You have to do that, or it gets old."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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