Michael Phelps is putting up a good fight. With his body upright and arms at his side, he kicks frenetically, trying to avoid touching the bottom of the pool. More than 30 seconds pass before he gives in and ends this leg-strengthening drill. Afterward, Phelps does strokes with large paddles strapped onto his hands, then swims the butterfly without kicking his legs. The 22-year-old, who won six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics and seven at the '07 world championships, embraces the self-imposed resistance since the competition doesn't always provide much of a challenge.
Phelps isn't the only decorated swimmer at the pool in Ann Arbor, where he works as a volunteer assistant for Michigan's swim team and trains separately with the independent Club Wolverine. Olympians Erik Vendt, Kaitlin Sandeno and Peter Vanderkaay have seven Olympic medals among them, and as many as five other Ann Arbor swimmers could be Beijing-bound. "It's an eight-cylinder engine at Michigan," says Jon Urbanchek, the Wolverines' coach from 1982 to 2004. "When one doesn't function, the car is going to cough. We work all eight cylinders efficiently. It's an environment with a common goal."
Urbanchek upheld the tradition of the men's program, which has won 11 NCAA team championships and 156 individual titles, until Bob Bowman, Phelps's personal coach, took over a few months before the Athens Olympics. The lure for Bowman was the program's unusually farsighted goal of preparing swimmers for the Olympics and its history of recruiting individual medley and distance swimmers, often at the expense of sprinters who can pile up points in dual meets and the NCAAs. "Jon really nourished a culture of Olympic excellence that you don't find at many universities," Bowman says. When U.S. men won gold in the 4X200-meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Games, three of the swimmers were Phelps, Vanderkaay and Club Wolverine alum Klete Keller.
Though the pool at Ann Arbor's Canham Natatorium isn't especially fast, the Olympic pride in the two-decade-old facility is palpable. The hallway of the back entrance is lined with glass-enclosed cases holding 72 swim caps from 11 countries, each cap with the name and flag of a Wolverines swimmer or diver who competed at the Games. On the far wall opposite Bowman's office, a clock located below large Olympic rings counts down the time until the opening ceremonies in Beijing on Aug. 8. The fractions of a second are extended to eight decimal places.
When Urbanchek recommended Bowman as his replacement, Phelps willingly came along from their Baltimore club. "I would have followed Bob to Siberia," he says. Fortunately Ann Arbor is closer and sometimes even warmer. Phelps bought a four-story town house near the natatorium, became a regular at Wolverines football games and began taking courses in kinesiology, something he has now put on hold until after Beijing.
Even under a hooded jacket in winter, he is easily spotted by passersby, and local eateries know to expect his order for a double breakfast. As much as Phelps tries to remain low-key, his teammates are particularly aware of his presence. "Think having the greatest swimmer in the world after your butt each day doesn't make you faster?" says Vendt.