BEYOND FACE VALUE
For most of his life, Michael Phelps has had little interest in self-reflection.
Occasionally, though, when he is away from the swimming pool and when he is bored, he will type his name into Google images and stare at snapshots people have taken of him over the years.
It is not an exercise in vanity. He likes to think about who he was in that brief and frozen moment.
“There are some after races where I like how intense I look,” he says. “I can see the picture and just replay everything that was going through my head at that moment.”
Beyond that, he does not like to look back. He doesn’t think much about the moments and the forces that shaped him. Especially not as he prepares for the start of the Beijing Olympics this week.
It’s an event many expect will be the pinnacle of his career. NBC, which paid a reported $800 million for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, has decided to make Phelps the face of the Games. You’ll see him every time you turn on your television, and not just in the pool. He’ll be featured in commercials pitching everything from low-interest credit cards and designer watches to skin-tight swimsuits and energy bars.
He insists he has never let any of it go to his head. It’s a lesson he learned when he returned home from Sydney in 2000 after competing in his first Olympics at age 15. His mother, Debbie, had blanketed his house in Rodgers Forge, Md., with banners and American flags to celebrate his return. Phelps’ stern coach, Bob Bowman, was dropping him off after driving from the airport, and when he saw the display, he was not happy.
“Bob was like, ‘Debbie, take those down! We don’t need those up, there is so much more that’s going to happen. We can’t do this for everything,’ ” Phelps says. “I think it was then that I realized you can’t get caught up on one thing. You just have to keep going.”
When you watch Phelps swim in Beijing -- when you tune in to see whether he can accomplish the unprecedented, winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics -- know that is possible only because of what happened in the last four years. After he won six gold medals in Athens.
The fist pumps at the end of a race and the grinning poses atop the medal stand aren’t as important as the moments that took place when few were watching.
Those moments show a teenager outgrowing his adolescence and coping with unexpected fame. There is triumph and disappointment, but also growth.
Study them, and you begin to see how time and pain -- two of the most powerful forces in a swimmer’s life -- have shaped the second act of Phelps’ career.
You’ll see how a great Olympic swimmer navigated the choppy waters between boyhood and manhood and in the process became, at age 23, the greatest swimmer of all time.
The big mistake
IT’S NOV. 15, 2004, and on the “Today” set, just a few minutes after 7 a.m., a 19-year-old Phelps sits across from host Matt Lauer. Wearing a black Speedo polo shirt and gray slacks, Phelps looks nervous and uncomfortable. There are bags under his eyes, and his gaze rarely leaves his lap for more than a few seconds.
Eleven days earlier, he was in Salisbury, Md., visiting his best friend. He had a few drinks at a party. In the years leading up to Athens, every decision was made with swimming in mind, so after the Olympics he was given time to decompress. To be a kid. To leave the pool and make mistakes.
After leaving the party, he rolled through a stop sign while making a right turn in his Land Rover. He was pulled over and charged with driving while intoxicated.
This is his first television interview since the arrest.
“For that 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl who’s got the poster of Michael Phelps up on the wall in their bedroom, and they’re throwing on the swim cap every day running to the pool to try and be like Mike, what do you say?” Lauer asks.
“I definitely let myself down and my family down,” Phelps says, his voice barely a mumble. His eyes only briefly meet Lauer’s.
“Let me just ask you for the record,” Lauer says. “Do you have a problem with alcohol, or is this an isolated incident?”
“This was an isolated incident,” Phelps says.
The past week, Phelps adds, has been one of the hardest of his life. He could not look his mother in the eye when she met him at his lawyer’s office after his arrest. He had to sit on a plane and watch people read stories about his arrest.
“I think I let a lot of people in the country down,” he says. “Hopefully I still have people out there who are fans and who are supporters.”
He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, got 18 months’ probation and had autograph seekers waiting for him in the parking lot after he left the courtroom. He spoke to kids about the dangers of alcohol. His sponsors stuck by him. These days, you will never see him photographed in public with a drink in his hand. Four years later, it remains one of his least favorite subjects.
Ask him to name the dumbest thing he has ever done and you’ll get an interesting answer.
“I think I’ve had stupid things that I’ve done, but I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Phelps says. “You learn the most from mistakes you make. They all may not be good, but I think I’ve learned from every mistake I’ve made and it’s made me a better person. In that respect, I don’t think I’ve done any stupid things.”
Leaving the nest
IT’S EARLY DECEMBER, 2004, and in Ann Arbor, Mich., Phelps is lonely and homesick. The plan was to move here after the Olympics, take classes, watch Michigan football games and train with other elite swimmers. But now that he’s here, it doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to make friends. He’s been living with his coach, and they’ve been at each other’s throats. The collegiate swimmers are running off to class and are worrying about tests.
He can’t swim because of back pain, an injury he picked up while riding a bus around the country to promote the sport. Phelps is concerned the injury could be chronic and that he’ll never be the same swimmer he was in Athens. A similar injury ended his sister Whitney’s swimming career.
He’s isolated from the water, the one thing he knows best. He misses his mom. He misses home-cooked meals, Ravens games and Baltimore accents. He wonders whether coming to Ann Arbor was a mistake.
One day he walks into his coach’s tiny office, tucked inside the Canham Natatorium. Four hours a day, for the next four years, it’s the place Phelps is supposed to train and call home.
His coach, Bowman, has been the dominant male authority figure in Phelps’ life since he was 11. For years, Phelps has had a tense relationship with his father Fred, who divorced Debbie Phelps when Michael was 9.
Phelps tells Bowman: “I don’t think I fit in here.”
“Michael, you probably wouldn’t fit in anywhere,” Bowman says. “At least not at first. But give it time. You will.”
He compiles a list of pros and cons, and decides to stay. Phelps buys a three-bedroom brownstone in downtown Ann Arbor. Bowman realizes that, away from the pool, he has to force Phelps to fend for himself. In Baltimore, Bowman knew where Phelps was at all times. In Michigan, outside of practice, they don’t have much interaction.
The gold medalist learns, ever so slowly, to do laundry, make meals and load his dishwasher.
One day, Phelps floods his kitchen with tiny bubbles when he puts hand soap in the dishwasher instead of detergent. He knows how hilarious this image is, a superstar buried to his knees in suds.
For the next two years, it will be his go-to anecdote when asked to talk about his personal growth in Ann Arbor.
IT’S JULY 30, 2005, and the sun is going down outside Parc Jean-Drapeau in Montreal, bringing the FINA World Championships to a close. Phelps scowls his way through a news conference. He’s trying to sum up his week, which includes a seventh-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle and a failure to make the semifinals in the 400 freestyle.
He also has won five gold medals at this meet, but inside, he’s furious.
Less than an hour ago, Ian Crocker had handed Phelps his worst defeat in years by touching the wall 1.25 seconds ahead of him in the 100-meter butterfly. He and Crocker are friends, but there is also an unspoken tension between them. Crocker, a laconic intellectual who spends his time away from the pool soaking up the beauty of art, literature and poetry, is the one man on Earth who makes Phelps look mortal. Crocker’s world record in the 100 butterfly (50.40) might be the one record Phelps wants the most.
“This entire year, and this world championships, have been a big wake-up call for me,” Phelps says.
He looks as if he wants to scream. His jaw muscles clench in between questions.
“I don’t like the feeling of not doing my best times. What happened here, I’m going to use for motivation, and hopefully by next summer, I’ll be able to give [Crocker] a race. He sort of ran away with it. I wasn’t even a factor.”
In the preceding year, there’s been so much to digest. He’s been on “Live with Regis and Kelly.” He’s done the “Tonight Show” and “Access Hollywood.” He’s had his famous abs poked by Vanessa Minnillo on MTV. He’s been a judge in the Miss America pageant. He’s tried to score Jenna Bush’s cell number in a New York City club. He’s filmed commercials and co-written his autobiography. He’s learned how to care for his bulldog, Herman. He’s taken his first college classes.
In between all that, he’s swum thousands of meters, but knows, at the close of the world championships, it was not nearly enough. In his heart, he realizes he wasn’t always dedicated to his training. That will change.
Nothing has ever ignited his internal fire quite like failure. Fame is nice, but Phelps has always craved competition.
He will spend the next two years punishing his body, in the pool and in the weight room, telling himself one thing.
Going all in
IT’S DEC. 7, 2006, and Phelps is playing Texas Hold ‘Em. Tonight it’s a charity tournament, organized to raise money to benefit the Nebraska Make-a-Wish program. It includes amateurs, professionals and even billionaire Warren Buffett.
It could just as easily be a night out at one of the casinos near Ann Arbor, or an afternoon game between Phelps and one of his friends in the airport while they wait for a plane.
He is in love with risk and strategy, and the methodical maneuvering the game requires. He relishes staring down an opponent. It’s similar to the approach he takes when he shows up at the pool, headphones on, blocking everyone else out. He devours two of the most popular pieces of gambling literature, “Positively Fifth Street” by James McManus and “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich. The movie “Rounders” is one of his favorites.
Once, in a casino with friends, he found himself getting bullied by another player who, despite bad positions and weak face cards, clearly wanted to tell his buddies that he bluffed the great Michael Phelps.
“Keep playing like that because you’re really going to make a lot of money,” Phelps told the guy after the hand was over, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Choosing to race in the 200-meter freestyle in Athens was like calling a big raise by Australian Ian Thorpe in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Phelps knew it was a longshot, knew he’d have to swim the perfect race to have a chance and get a little lucky. Winning would have been like catching the perfect card on the river.
Phelps, because he had studied Thorpe’s strokes, his mannerisms, his grace when dealing with the media, wanted to take that chance, even if finishing third behind Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband would spoil an otherwise perfect Olympics.
He spent years yearning for a rematch and figured it would come at the world championships in Melbourne in 2007.
But then Thorpe surprisingly retired, burned out on the sport. Inside, Phelps seethed. He felt cheated.
Australians made it a point to call Thorpe “The Greatest Swimmer of All Time” in his send-off, saying that Phelps could never take that unofficial title away from him now that the Thorpedo had hung up his cap and goggles.
The world championships, though, are just a few months away.
Phelps wants to show Australia, and the world, what happens when he decides to go all in.
The big brother
IT’S APRIL 2, 2007, closing in on midnight in Australia. Phelps has just wrapped up an unthinkable week in Melbourne, dominating the world championships like no one before him. He’s won seven gold medals and set five world records.
His friends are shooting him text messages telling him he’s the subject of major debate on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” Is Phelps one of the greatest athletes of all time? Opinions vary. But he has people talking about swimming in a non-Olympic year. This is the life he’s dreamed of since he put a poster of swimming great Pablo Morales on his childhood bedroom wall.
During his final news conference of the meet, a horde of media is packed into a tiny auditorium in Rod Laver Arena.
His mind is somewhere else. He keeps glancing at a television set in the back of the room.
Finally he holds up his hand.
“Hang on just a second,” Phelps says.
He’s watching fellow North Baltimore Aquatic Club product Katie Hoff swim the 400-meter individual medley.
“C’mon Katie!” he says.
When Hoff touches the wall, grabbing her first world record in an individual event, Phelps smiles and gives a tiny fist pump.
“Sorry,” he says. “Didn’t want to miss that.”
He’s been something of a big brother to Hoff the last few years, teasing her and making her flinch at every opportunity.
“I could have like a million records and he’d still give me grief,” Hoff says.
By nature, he is a solitary man once he gets to the pool. He never interacts with anyone but Bowman until his races are over. But once he’s done, you’ll see a man who is incredibly invested in the success of people he cares about.
“He’s unbelievably kindhearted,” Bowman says. “I think when you see him compete, all you see is this ruthless competitor.
“I remember when we were in Baltimore, our practice would be over and the very youngest kids would be in right after us. And there wasn’t a day go by that he wouldn’t have some interaction with those kids.”
IT’S NOV. 18, 2007, in Beverly Hills. Cars are pulling up in front of the Beverly Hilton, and the best swimmers in the world are stepping onto the red carpet.
They’re here to celebrate the Golden Goggle Awards, swimming’s version of the Oscars. Ryan Lochte is dressed in a white suit, a black shirt and has on a red silk tie. Dana Vollmer is wearing a black sequined dress with a V-cut in the back that is so dramatic you can see her tattoo of the Olympic rings on the small of her lower back. Even Mark Spitz is here, in a gray pinstripe suit that matches his hair.
Phelps is not in a good mood even though he will win multiple awards. He mumbles his way through a television interview with a European TV station. He forces a few smiles and fidgets impatiently in between interviews.
On his right wrist is a tiny purple scar. A month before in Ann Arbor, he stumbled, tried to brace himself and cracked his scaphoid bone. He’d hoped it was nothing, but when he saw the swelling in his wrist the next day -- and had his worst fears confirmed by X-ray -- he was devastated. He was so scared to call Bowman to break the news, he asked Michigan’s trainer to do it instead.
“This is it,” a teary Phelps told Bowman when he finally got on the line. “It’s over. I’m finished.”
He wasn’t ruined, but the quickest route back into the water was surgery, inserting a small pin into his wrist. Everything that happened in Australia suddenly seems irrelevant.
His training isn’t going particularly well, and frustration is creeping in. He’ll have two good weeks, then two miserable days. He is in a funk.
On this night, everyone wants a picture with him, a hug, or a few seconds to shake his hand. Even swimmers are drawn to him. He floats around the reception, forcing a smile but barely engaging anyone for more than a minute. His girlfriend, one of the few things in his life he keeps private, is with him, a stunning brunette with dark features and perfect skin.
Late in the evening, he steps to the podium and accepts his second consecutive swimmer-of-the-year award. He and Lochte trade Young Jeezy lyrics in their acceptance speeches, one of the few times he shows a genuine smile all night.
In a month, he’ll test the wrist for the first time in competition at a meet in Atlanta. He has no idea what to expect.
Beijing is 265 days away.
IT’S MARCH 26, 2008, and Phelps is driving Bowman’s Land Rover with one knee while he checks his BlackBerry. An Ann Arbor hip-hop station is blaring from the radio. He’s not wearing a seat belt. He looks as if he could be any one of a thousand Michigan undergrads, hurrying to get to class.
Instead, he’s on his way to shoot the second half of a commercial for Rosetta Stone, a language software company paying him to endorse its product and learn Mandarin before the Olympics. An entire creative team is waiting to determine what clothes he should wear, what lines he should say and how he should look when he walks a bulldog named Winston who is playing the part of his own pet bulldog, Herman.
The next stop is a two-bedroom brownstone on Main Street, just a few doors down from the house where he lived for three years. He sold it to cut down on distractions. For the purpose of this commercial, however, he still lives downtown. He also prepares his own food, an admitted rarity. In the kitchen, a producer hands him two eight-inch knives and asks him to mimic vigorous chopping. At his feet, the producer’s assistants are getting ready to throw handfuls of diced peppers into the air.
“OK Mike, I want you to look really focused, whipping those knives up and down almost like you’re playing drums,” the producer says.
“I don’t play drums,” Phelps says.
“OK, well, pretend you’re at a Benihana,” the producer says.
For the next 20 seconds, Phelps’ arms are a blur. Diced peppers are flying through the air and bouncing off appliances, as well as his face. He does his best to keep from laughing. It looks ridiculous in person, but it will look perfect once it’s edited. It will help Rosetta Stone move units and make money. Phelps too. His annual earnings, according to recent estimates, are about $5 million. His Mandarin, however, is limited to a few words.
There will be a few more commercials to shoot before the Olympics, but Octagon and Bowman have had several discussions about how much training he can miss to do promotions.
The media’s access to him, at this point, is limited mostly to swim meets and news conferences.
“I don’t really tell people no, I just have someone do it for me,” Phelps says, grinning.
He heads back to the pool for his afternoon practice. He suspects it will be grueling. Bowman, who had to go out of town for a few days, has left the Club Wolverine swimmers a note on the dry erase board next to the pool.
“100 percent participating required. NO DEALS!”
It’s obvious for whom the note is intended.
Ready for Beijing
IT’S JULY 5, 2008, and Phelps is standing in front of a room full of reporters, looking relaxed. He’s just wrapped up a dominating performance at the U.S. swim trials in Omaha, winning all of his events, beating Crocker in the 100 butterfly, setting two world records and putting to rest any doubts about whether he’ll be ready for Beijing.
He’s at ease, making people laugh, telling stories at a media luncheon. His mom, Debbie, is here too. He’s barely seen her in months, but she’s been watching him swim all week and they had dinner to celebrate his 23rd birthday.
He worries about her. If it were up to him, she’d have retired already, but she doesn’t want to hear it. The principal at Windsor Mill Middle School, she cares about her students too much to walk away.
Debbie is still the most influential voice in his life.
It’s been that way since his parents’ divorce. He feels as if his work ethic came from watching her try to raise three kids by herself. When he was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 9, she just worked harder to make sure he did his homework and learned to focus in class. Now she’s a spokeswoman for ADHD Moms, a website on Facebook to educate parents. He wonders whether she’ll ever have time for herself.
Someone asks him a question about growing up, and what it was like when he wasn’t the best in the world. He smiles. He tells a story about Meadowbrook Athletic Club, and the first time he lost a race.
“I remember I got out-touched at the wall and I threw my goggles,” Phelps says. “I was 8 years old. I didn’t like to lose. I had to kind of grow out of that stage where you throw temper tantrums.”
Everyone in the room chuckles. Reporters scribble down the anecdote. It’s meant to signify growth and maturity.
It does, in a sense. But it’s also just one moment in a long journey that brought him to where he is now.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
BORN: June 30, 1985, in Baltimore.
FAMILY: Parents Debbie and Fred (divorced in 1994); older sisters Hilary and Whitney.
DID YOU KNOW: Michael is a 2003 Towson High (Baltimore) graduate. He was diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) as a youth (age 9) and his mom helps others deal with the condition at a website (on Facebook) called ADHD Moms. His sister, Whitney, almost made the 1996 Olympic team. He makes $5 million a year in endorsements. He has a pet bulldog named Herman.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: Attempting to become the first Olympian to win eight gold medals in a single Games, besting the record of Mark Spitz (seven) set in 1972. With four gold medals Phelps would become the all-time leader among U.S. Olympians.
THREE THINGS TO LOOK FOR FROM BEIJING:
Commercials, commercials, commercials. Phelps will be hawking Speedo, Omega, Powerbar, Visa and others.
Showdowns with teammate Ryan Lochte in the individual medleys and Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps beat Lochte in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials, with each of them swimming faster than the world record, and the rematch in Beijing might be the best race of the Olympics.
Close-ups of Debbie. If there is one thing you can count on, it will be NBC having a camera follow Michael’s mom throughout his events.
COVERAGE: WHY WE CHEER, D4 | MARK SPITZ AND SWIMMING SUITS, D5 | MEN’S BASKETBALL, D5
ON THE WEB
Michael Phelps discusses his motivation for the Games in a video interview at latimes.com.