Here is what most people think of when the seemingly immortal swimmer out of Baltimore comes to mind: 16 Olympic medals, 14 of them Gold, and seven current world records. With the 2012 games in London on the horizon, Michael Phelps needs just three more medals to become the most decorated Olympian ever. Gold, silver, or bronze, it doesn’t matter.
The back story to Phelps’ incredible success may seem all too familiar now. Behind every great athlete is a greater coach. Bob Bowman, a former head coach of the men’s swim team at University of Michigan, has been Phelps’ private coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland since he was 10 years old. While neither was too keen on working with the other in the beginning, the two were able to make it work, with Phelps’ calling it “the smartest decision I’ve ever made.” Easy to say 16 medals later.
But this is not how the story ends. Despite being one of the greatest swimmers to have ever come along, there’s a lot the average fan doesn’t see.
Phelps public image suffered a dramatic blow in early 2009, a few months removed from basking in the glory of a historic Beijing Olympic campaign. The photo of Phelps’ marijuana’s incident was damaging, but it was the aftermath that was more consequential. He started missing practice, something that was unheard of leading up to the Beijing games in ’08. In the summer of 2010, Phelps missed a major practice about a week before Nationals. It was found out a later that he was in Las Vegas for the weekend, much to the chagrin of Bowman.
Bowman told Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview that it wasn’t just a couple skipped practices here and there, but that Phelps’ absences would last for weeks at a time. It got bad enough that Bowman thought Phelps’ chance of retiring at that point was “50-50.” Phelps himself said he had a hard time rekindling the passion required to wake up early to practice everyday. “I’ve been able to go to all these amazing cities in my travels and I haven’t been able to see them at all. I see the hotel and I see the pool. That’s it.”
What changed though?
It wasn’t until the final months of 2011 that Phelps started enjoying himself again. Once again, swimming was fun for him, and was something he wanted to do. “ I kind of feel like my old self again. I’m swimming times like I used to. I’m swimming races how I used to. So, everything is coming back to me, what it was, I guess, before ’08,” Phelps told Cooper on 60 Minutes.
Although it wasn’t his private coach that directly ignited the fire again, Bowman was with Phelps every step of the way. From his highs in Beijing to his lows of being suspended from competition for 3 months due to the marijuana incident. Bowman did have his doubts that Phelps could regain his ’08 mojo, but when asked again if he thinks his prized swimmer can win multiple gold medals in London, Bowman replied quickly “Oh for sure.”