Michael Phelps and the quest to swim the perfect race
AQUAMAN IS STRUGGLING with his double chicken enchiladas. This is because on dry land, Aquaman, a.k.a. Michael Phelps, is the self-described "klutziest person on earth." It's late October, and a week ago Phelps tripped while climbing out of a car here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reached to catch himself, and cracked his scaphoid. He's earned himself a short pin in the wrist, a few days out of the drink, and a club of a cast that's making an awkward affair out of one of his favorite pastimes—hunting down the 8,000 to 10,000 daily calories it takes to fuel the world's most dominant athletic machine.
Your first thought upon seeing this cast is patriotic horror. Four years after Phelps earned eight Olympic medals (six gold and two bronze), a count that surpassed 177 entire countries at the Athens Games, America's superhero is expected to duplicate this effort in Beijing come August. Right now, odds are he'll compete in at least eight events: 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle, 200 and 400 individual medley, 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 freestyle relay, and 4 x 100 medley relay. He's swimming so well these days, however, that there's talk of a ninth (100 backstroke) and possibly a tenth (200 backstroke) event. Speedo, one of his seven major sponsors, has once again dangled a cool million in front of Phelps if he can match the record of seven golds set by Mark Spitz. But what about obliterating the record? What about ten golds? Phelps won't go there, saying simply, "I want to swim the events that allow me to do my best."
Your second thought seeing that cast is, Huh, its owner isn't ten feet tall and chiseled out of granite. With his Detroit Tigers ball cap spun 160 degrees and his designer jeans riding low above his Ugg loafers, the 22-year-old could be any lanky student slouching across campus. And you think, briefly, that maybe if you'd just worked harder you could've gone further with your athletic career. Maybe even to the Olympics.
But, no, you're just seeing Aquaman out of his element. After lunch I'll stand next to his six-foot-four frame—I'm six-two—and notice that his legs are significantly shorter than mine. His torso, however, goes on forever, before tapering to an almost girlish waist. He has the streamlined build of a seal: double-jointed for flexibility, size 14 flippers, with a pterodactyl's wingspan three inches longer than his height.
On the inside, Phelps is even more freakish. Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Swimming's director of physiology, looked at Phelps's lactate count in 2003 after he broke a world record. Sokolovas has pinpricked some 5,000 high-level swimmers, and none of them has ever posted a count of less than ten millimoles per liter of blood after a comparable effort. Phelps's reading was 5.6. The uncommonly low number is significant: It means his muscles recover remarkably fast between workouts and races, which, in part, is why he can compete in so many events in such a short time.
But natural assets take you only so far. An overarching reason for Phelps's continued improvement is his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps began working with Bowman back in Baltimore at age 11; three years ago he followed him to Ann Arbor when Bowman became the University of Michigan men's swimming coach. Bowman, a perfectionist, now oversees Phelps's life aquatic from his office facing the university's Canham Natatorium, where a clock relentlessly ticks down the time until the Games begin—288 days, 16 hours, 31 minutes, 45 seconds, 44... 43...
In Phelps, Bowman has a student who shares his pursuit of underwater perfection. After the 2003 world championships, when the U.S.'s Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the 100-meter fly, preventing him from winning his sixth gold medal—and breaking his sixth world record—Phelps taped a photo of Crocker on the wall above his bed. For nearly a year, his rival was the first thing he saw every morning. Phelps beat Crocker in Athens by .04 seconds. "I hate to lose," Phelps explains.
Bowman knows how important it is to stoke this competitive drive, especially in an athlete who loses so infrequently. So while the rest of the world was pinning the "greatest ever" tag on Phelps after the Athens Games, a post-Olympic DUI notwithstanding, Bowman was convincing his pupil there was room for improvement. Aquaman may have collected eight medals, but his performance in the "walls," or transitions, was positively ordinary. Phelps couldn't push off and take more than four or five of the critical but grueling "dolphin kicks" in an entire race. So the pair decided to improve them, a move not unlike Tiger Woods's deciding to retool his swing despite being the best golfer on the planet.
They started in the gym. Bowman added a three-times-a-week, one-to-two-hour regimen of strength training to Phelps's routine. The swimmer has put on 14 pounds of muscle and zero fat. (At our lunch, this was hard to believe. When Phelps's double enchiladas arrived, he promptly airlifted the cilantro to safety and applied a side of sour cream before tucking in. "I'm not the healthiest person," he concedes, "but I get what I need.") For dry-land training, they worked on plyometrics and the stationary bike. (Bowman long ago banned running—too much of a hazard for the klutz.) And they worked nonstop on his dolphin kicks. Three years later, Phelps had become one of the best transition swimmers in the world, able to surge underwater to the 15-meter limit on nearly every turn.
The New & Improved Phelps made his debut last spring, at the world championships in Melbourne. He won seven gold medals Down Under—and would've won an eighth in the 400-meter medley relay had a teammate not been disqualified. He also set five world records. And in a sport where victory is usually measured in hundredths of a second, Aquaman beat one second-place swimmer by more than three seconds. Phelps's ecumenical domination is even more staggering when you consider that he's competing mostly against specialists who focus on just one or two events.
The success means the pre-Olympic hype for the Michael Phelps Show has only intensified. There are ESPN commercials in the works. More cover stories. Cameras are already poking around his day-to-day life for a potential reality-TV show. NBC has cajoled the International Olympic Committee into rescheduling the start time of Beijing's swimming events to ensure that Phelps's races will be beamed live during prime time to living rooms across North America.
Despite the mounting pressure, Phelps's life is—for the moment, anyway—shockingly low-key: After swimming or working out up to five hours a day, the guy just kicks back. "I'm the most laid-back person out of the water," he says. He plays Halo 3. He eats. He hangs out with Herman, his goofy English bulldog puppy. He watches SportsCenter. And eats some more. "His greatest strength," Bowman says, "is his ability to relax and focus under the stress of competition. And as the pressure and the expectation level rise, his performance level rises."
It helps that Phelps insists on setting his own expectations, even if they're no less lofty than the media's. "Swimmers are some of the most dominant athletes in American history," he says, "but the American public doesn't see that." Exhibit A: Last year's five world records in Melbourne were largely ignored by an American public fixated on March Madness. Phelps wants to change that, and he knows the catalyst has to be his own performance.
On his nightstand, Phelps keeps a list of all of the races he wants to enter in Beijing, along with all of his time goals. Walking toward his car after lunch, I prod a little more, trying one last time to get him to reveal just how many races—and which ones—are on that list. But Aquaman just smiles, demurs. Only he and Bowman, I'm told, know what's on that piece of paper. Not even his mother has seen it.