Bob Bowman’s Coaching Switch Disrupts U.S. Swimmers Ahead of Olympic Trials

The Hall of Fame coach sent ripples through the swimming world by leaving Arizona State for Texas. Now, the top American swimmers are scrambling as Bowman prepares to coach France in Paris.
Bowman cheers on his Arizona State swimmers as they go against the Grand Canyon Lopes in Tempe in January 2024.
Bowman cheers on his Arizona State swimmers as they go against the Grand Canyon Lopes in Tempe in January 2024. / Diannie Chavez/The Republic / USA TODAY

On Saturday, March 30, a fully clothed Bob Bowman jumped in the IUPUI Natatorium pool with his Arizona State Sun Devils men’s swimming team to celebrate the first NCAA championship in program history. The following night, the legendary coach called some—but not all—of the members of his pro group while they were training in Colorado Springs with some shocking news.

Bowman informed them that the next day—April 1st, but not April Fool's Day—he would be announced as the new men’s coach and overall director of swimming and diving at Texas.

Several of Bowman’s pro swimmers were “furious” and “felt betrayed,” according to sources familiar with the reaction from that group. The impact on the collegians Bowman was leaving behind in Tempe was even worse.

“It was like someone shot your puppy,” says Grant House, who has been a member of the Sun Devils program as both a collegian and professional since 2017. “It severely impacted everyone’s emotional well-being.”

Regardless of sport, it can be a painful process when a successful coach leaves one job for another. Secrets are kept as negotiations play out. Feelings get hurt. There are no easy ways out.

But Bowman leaving Arizona State was doubly awkward and acrimonious. The disappointment ran deep, the timing was brutal and there were two separate groups bearing the brunt of it—the college team and the all-star pros who had flocked to the desert to train under the man who mentored Michael Phelps to 28 Olympic medals. 

The announcement came just 75 days before the U.S. Olympic Trials, throwing a bunch of America’s top swimmers into uncertainty. (Not to mention Bowman’s best current swimmer, world-record holder Léon Marchand, who is poised to be the French face of the Olympics.) A routine-obsessed group had their lives disrupted at a critical stage of preparation for the most pressurized meet in the world—the one that selects the 26 men and 26 women who will represent the stars and stripes in Paris. 

What followed was two months of abrupt goodbyes, broken leases, airplanes, Airbnb’s, split training groups and new surroundings. “It was an absolute mess,” says a family member of one of the affected swimmers.

But here’s the thing: elite swimmers are willing to endure the mess to follow Bob Bowman wherever he goes. Phelps did it twice, going with Bowman from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to the University of Michigan and then to ASU. Now the likes of Marchand—who broke Phelps’s last individual world record in the 400-meter individual medley last year—and American Olympians Regan Smith, Simone Manuel, Chase Kalisz, Paige Madden, Jay Litherland and Drew Kibler have packed bags for Bowman as well.

He’s that good. Always demanding, often uncompromising and occasionally caustic—but very good.

And truth be told, this particular mess might have been unavoidable. The Texas men’s coaching job might be the most desirable in college swimming. The Longhorns have won 15 NCAA championships and enjoy the backing of massive athletic department revenue. Legendary coach Eddie Reese was retiring, and though he will continue to coach the Horns through Trials and Paris, getting a replacement onboard quickly was important for recruiting.

Bowman wasn’t going to be able to put Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte off for two-and-a-half months. If he wanted the job, he had to take it and let the most talented pro group on the planet deal with the fallout.

“Very difficult,” Bowman said in April, less than two weeks after taking the Texas job. “I put my heart and soul into ASU, love it to death, love those guys. When the opportunity came up, it was kind of an agonizing month. Let’s just say I haven’t had a lot of sleep for a while. Because I knew what the ramifications would be. 

“Having said that, the opportunity is one that is so rare in this sport and quite frankly so special that I could not say no to it. I just had to do it. That’s what I tried to explain to [the swimmers]. We get caught up in swimming—all of us love it so much, it’s just a thing we do. But they’re going to move on someday and have a career, and this is my career. So I’m going to be doing this long after they’re finished swimming, and I had to make some decisions in accordance with that. I told them, ‘In 10 years you’ll understand. Right now you’re not going to understand.’“

Bowman’s original plan upon taking the Texas job included a brazen request of the school he just jilted. At his introductory press conference in Austin, he said he planned to keep his pro group in Tempe for three weeks of training before going back to altitude camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. 

Didn’t happen. Arizona State nixed that arrangement.

“Bob got bounced,” says one source familiar with that situation.

Thus many of the ASU pros were on the move to Austin, scrambling for living quarters. (The 30-year-old Kalisz and Smith, who is 22, became odd-couple roommates in an Airbnb for about three weeks.) Some—most notably freestylers House and Ryan Held—opted to stay at ASU with new head coach Herbie Behm, who had been the highly successful sprint coach there under Bowman.

“Bob contributed a lot to ASU,” says House, who had been training under Behm for about two years. “But Bob isn’t ASU. It’s more than just him. The culture here isn’t something written on a piece of paper. It’s lived every day.”

For all the complications of the last two months, the performances by Bowman’s swimmers strongly indicate that nothing has been lost, compromised or ruined. The pros lit up the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine, Calif., in late May, their last tuneup before Trials.

Manuel, trying to complete a remarkable comeback after it appeared her stellar career might be over last year, posted times in the 100 and 200 freestyle that will make her a strong Olympic relay contender. She will have a chance to make the U.S. team in the individual 100-meter free as well. Madden swam a lifetime best in the 400 freestyle and will be a threat to make the team in that event for the second straight time. Marchand swam a lifetime best in the 100 breastroke and the fastest 2024 time in the world in the 200 individual medley. And Smith broke her own American record in the 100 backstroke, lowering that mark to 57.51 seconds, plus a personal best of 56.26 in the 100 butterfly. 

If their form carries over to Indianapolis and Paris, Bowman will add new chapters to his spectacular body of work. And it wasn’t too long ago that it looked like his best days might have been behind him.

After his work with Phelps (23 gold medals, three silver, two bronze) and Allison Schmitt (four gold medals, three silver, three bronze), Bowman leaned into the slow building process at Arizona State. Meanwhile, most of the top U.S. swimmers were training elsewhere. But top training groups are fluid entities, and swimming is a burnout sport. 

Swimmers can be nomads in search of a new voice or new training regimen if their current location grows stale and their results plateau. Phelps was an extreme outlier, going his entire career working just with Bowman. Boom and bust cycles for coaches are not uncommon as swimmers come and go. Bowman’s latest boom cycle came from a combination of circumstances. 

Swim coach Bob Bowman and swimmer Michael Phelps
Bowman (left) and Phelps (right) during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Marchand’s ascendance got people’s attention and stoked memories of the magic Bowman worked with Phelps. Smith left Stanford after one year and landed at ASU, where she’s thrived with the intense Bowman workload. Manuel, who swam at Stanford as both collegian and a pro, also relocated from Palo Alto to Tempe after being out of the water for about a year. The retirement of Georgia coach Jack Bauerle led to Kalisz, Litherland and Smoliga joining up with Bowman, whose training philosophy fit hand-in-glove with Bauerle. Madden swam collegiately at Virginia, then trained and studied in England; when she came back to the U.S. she opted for Arizona State.

“It’s very satisfying,” Bowman said in June 2023 of his return to the forefront of the sport. “I knew when I took the ASU job [in 2015] Michael was going to be done [after the ’16 Olympics], and I needed a challenge. I was too young to quit; I didn’t know what else to do. It took us a while to get here; having gone through that process, definitely makes it satisfying to know we can do the things we’re doing now.”

In the year since then, the results have only gotten better. After breaking Phelps’s 400 individual medley record last summer and leading ASU to that NCAA title, Marchand should be the centerpiece attraction of the Olympic swimming competition (and Bowman will be on the French coaching staff). And Smith is poised for a big Olympic Trials, and could find herself in as many as six events in Paris with relays factored in.

So, yeah, there is a reason why swimmers will follow the Bob Bowman bandwagon wherever it goes. Because the training works.

“It’s been absolutely ridiculous,” says one person of the Tempe-to-Austin tumult. “But oh well. He writes a nice workout.”


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.