In the twilight of his record-breaking swimming career, Michael Phelps is enjoying his final laps ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
Few of us need reminders that the end of something important is near. A graduation, a wedding, a retirement—they all sit out there in the distance, and gradually we advance upon them, crossing out dates on a calendar until none remain. Michael Phelps is aware that his last U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, in Omaha, is four weeks away and that his last Olympics (barring some major upsets) are a month beyond that, and that on the night of Aug. 13 in Rio de Janeiro, he will officially—for the final time—become an ex-professional swimmer. (Not to say that he’s been cheated in this area; the Rio Games will be his fifth). Athletes, more than most, live by schedules formulated years in advance.
Just the same, Phelps has been getting some help. During their fifth and final full week of altitude training in Colorado Springs last week, Phelps’s close friend, two-time Olympian and six-time medalist Allison Schmitt, began conducting a public countdown of ‘lasts’ to send the group, trained by Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, back to sea level and the major competitions beyond. This is the last Thursday we’ll ever have in Colorado. This is the last Friday we’ll ever have in Colorado…
“She’s been saying something every day,” says Phelps in a phone interview late last week. “So it’s pretty hard to escape, even if I was trying to.” Which he is not. More on that in a moment.
Last fall I went to Arizona to meet with Phelps for a series of interviews that resulted in a Sports Illustrated story detailing the depths of Phelps’s despair after a DUI a year before in 2014 and the hard rehabilitation that followed. It was a story that ended optimistically, with Phelps embracing life in ways he had never done before and committing to a last Olympic run with a passion for training and competition that he had not felt in more than a decade, if ever. He promised that the 2015 U.S. championships, in which he swam the fastest times in the world in his three core events, was a beginning and not a blip. He was also engaged to be married.
(Quick aside here: On the third morning of my time in Arizona, I walked to a weight training session with Phelps and his fiancée, Nicole Johnson. Johnson repeatedly stopped and seemed to be getting sick to her stomach. Having watched my wife go through two pregnancies, I wondered if perhaps I was seeing morning sickness, but that is a question you don’t ask of a couple that has not made a pregnancy announcement. “I have a tickle in my throat,” Johnson said. It was some tickle. Two weeks after the story was published, Phelps and Johnson were given clearance to announce that Johnson was pregnant. Boomer Robert Phelps was born on May 5.)
Phelps, 30, was convinced then that his new appreciation for life, family and friends would not only make him a better person, but possibly a faster swimmer, as well. (For one thing, he no longer drinks alcohol and thus no longer trains hung over, not a small point). “I’m back to being the little kid who once said anything is possible,” said Phelps at that time. “You’re going to see a different me than you saw in any of the other Olympics.” The other Phelps has won 22 Olympic medals (four more than any other athlete in history), including 18 gold (eight more than anyone else), ridiculous totals that will only become more mind-boggling with the passage of time.
As with any profile, that story was a snapshot of a subject in one moment. But the future is liquid. More than one reader suggested that Phelps was spouting rehab pablum and would soon be back in trouble. When I spoke with Phelps last week, more than seven months had passed since that profile; little seems to have changed, except that he was missing his son, having spent just five days at home in Arizona during Boomer’s first three weeks of life. (Phelps flew to Arizona from Colorado for the birth and stayed three days, and then flew back last weekend for two more days).
“That part sucks,” said Phelps. “Those two times leaving to come back here were the two toughest goodbyes I’ve ever had.” Nicole and Boomer will be in Rio and for Phelps, whose improved relationship with his own father has been central to his growth, that also is motivation. “I realize Boomer won’t remember anything,” Phelps says. “But there will be documentation that he was there”—this is a safe assumption—“That gives me some extra motivation to close it out the right way and make the little man proud.”
Each of Phelps’s Olympics has brought a slightly different vibe. In 2000 he was a 15-year-old with an outside shot at a medal (he finished fifth in his only event, the 200-meter butterfly). By 2004, he was a star whose six gold medals and two bronzes were considered by some to be a mild disappointment because they fell short of Mark Spitz’s seven. Four years later, with rock-star anticipation, he won eight in Beijing. Then he retired, and came back to win five in London, but the entire exercise was a joyless slog and Phelps never achieved real fitness or pleasure. “He didn’t care at all in 2012,” Bowman says. “Until the endgame, and then it was too late.”
Phelps claims it’s markedly different now. “Four years ago at this point,” Phelps says, “I was like, ‘Get me through these last two months and get this thing over with so I can move on.’ Now, it’s so different. I’m looking forward to those last few weeks of my career. I’m enjoying it. I’m taking it in. But I’m also trying to stay with what we have ahead of us and keep on track.”
Emotional currency pays only part of the cost of success. When Phelps returned to the pool last winter, Bowman made adjustments to the program that had produced all those medals in Athens and Beijing and which carried Phelps through London on fumes. Phelps will turn 31 during the trials; his body can’t tolerate the 85,000-yard training weeks from a decade ago and his sound but occasionally sore right shoulder needs some pampering. Phelps is stronger and more muscular, but lacks the rubbery resilience of youth. Bowman subjects Phelps to more targeted intensity than ever, but also gives him more recovery time after tough sessions. “I can’t handle the pounding I could when I was a kid,” Phelps says. “But it’s been really exciting to not swim in exactly the same way. Change is good. I don’t want to say it’s been easier, but it kind of has been, because it’s more enjoyable.”
“Has it all worked out?” Bowman asks. “We’re going to find out in 30 days. Every indication is that he is swimming as fast as he ever has in practice, and he hasn’t gotten so broken down that I haven’t been able to get him out of it in a couple days.”
Phelps has competed half a dozen times in the 2016 season. It’s an Olympic year, so it’s foolish to read much into performances by the best racers in winter and early spring, when most are training through meets and tinkering with their stroke and tactics. Of note: Phelps unveiled a new freestyle finish, incorporating several dolphin kicks and an increased stroke rate in the last 15 meters into the wall. Also, in a mid-April meet in Mesa, Ariz., Phelps won the 200-meter butterfly in a time of 1:58.14, which is only No. 50 in the world this year. However the race was contested in freakishly windy conditions. “That swim took, like three times the normal effort,” Bowman says. “He was taking 23 or 24 strokes going against the wind, instead of 19 or 20. I’m sure, under normal conditions, that was a 1:56 or even a 1:55 swim.” For comparison, Phelps’s world-best time in 2015 was 1:52.94, but again, that was with rest.
Practice sessions have been even more instructive. Last Wednesday Phelps swam a set with/against 2012 Olympian Conor Dwyer. The set included a broken 200-meter freestyle—50 meters from a dive, 100 from a push and the final 50 from a dive with minimal rest between the components—followed by a broken 200 butterfly (with the same breakdown) and then finished with a 100-meter butterfly. The workout accurately measures race readiness, and Phelps has completed it before most of his major championship competitions.
“[Dwyer] and I were pretty much racing each other,” Phelps says. “And I’ve only done that workout faster, once in my life, and that was in 2008 going into ’09, in a full-body Lazr suit [which are now banned from professional competition]. For me to be at the times I was at in that workout, I was very, very pleased.”
At the trials, where the top two finishers in each event make the U.S. Olympic team, Phelps is planning to swim just three individual events, the same three that he swam at U.S. nationals last summer: 100- and 200-meter butterfly and the 200 individual medley. Phelps is also hoping to swim on all three U.S. men’s relays: the 4x100 freestyle, 4x100 medley and 4x200 freestyle. Gone from the bonkers schedule in Beijing is the 400 IM and the 200 free; gone from his London slate is the 200 free.
But the 200 free hasn’t been pushed from his mind just yet. Phelps is swimming the event (along with his three trials events) at the Elite Invite this weekend in Austin, with the goal to swim it fast enough to secure a position on the 4x200 free relay so he doesn’t have to swim it in Omaha. Skipping the 200 free at the trials would allow Phelps to start his entire program one day later, and accumulate at least two fewer swims (even if he were to swim the 200 free at the trials, Bowman says he would probably swim only the heats and semifinals, not the finals). “The goal is to get as many things off his plate as possible,” Bowman says
Another change: Phelps will taper for the trials—a concession to his relatively advanced age, at which training into a major event is a gamble. “We will give him full preparation,” Bowman says. “I don’t think we can play around with that. This isn’t 2004. We will give him full rest.”
A last unknown remains. Phelps 2016 is a mature, grown man with a fiancée and a child. He’s a different person in some ways—a better one, to be sure, but undeniably different. The old Phelps was not only gifted and driven, but a beast on the starting blocks, often fueled by anger and perceived slights. Few athletes in history—in any sport—have more reliably delivered their best when it was needed. Bowman relishes describing Phelps’s 2012 silver medal swim in the 200-meter butterfly, a performance summoned from memory on far from optimal training.
“That was a freaking miracle by a guy who didn’t train for that event for three years,” Bowman told me last fall. “No one else in history could reach down like that, at that moment, and get to the point where he could get out-touched by five hundredths.” Or as Lochte puts it, “Michael is the best racer in the sport. People say he did all this work or didn’t do all this work. When he gets on the blocks, he’s going to race.” (Also in London, Phelps split a blazing 47.15 in the 4x100 free relay, with that minimal conditioning).
But does the new, mellower Phelps still have that ability? A month ago, Bowman went looking for it. Phelps and training partner Chase Kalisz were swimming a long set of mixed 150s (50 meters backstroke, 50 meters breaststroke, 50 meters freestyle). “Michael was swimming it okay,” says Bowman. “But he wasn’t really giving me the tiger, so I poked him, to see what was there. I yelled, `Are you ever going to race anybody or are you just going to swim up and down. Are going to try to win any of these?’ He looked at me, and then we saw that animal come out.”
The man with 22 Olympic medals is confident that he has not forgotten how to win more of them. He is still not just a celebrity superstar, but also the swim nerd trolling the internet in search of an inflammatory quote for motivation. “There are things in the back of my head,” he says. “Those are things that are with my every day.” Come late June, come early August, he says, he will find a familiar hunger. “That guy is still in there, still inside me,” Phelps says. “He hasn’t gone anywhere.”