8 According to ancient Chinese numerology, the most auspicious number.
8/8/08 The date the Beijing Games officially begin. At 8 p.m.
8 The number of gold medals Michael Phelps hopes to win there.
July 27, 2008
A story of what it takes to do that, in 8 parts
I. THE SWIMMER
Belmont Plaza is an unlovely pool, a beige hulk squatting on a grimy stretch of Long Beach in Southern California. Behind it, on the Pacific horizon, container ships and oil derricks mar the sunset. Across the parking lot a diner called Chuck's displays a sign declaring itself HOME OF THE WEASEL. In the world of sports venues, this is a long way from Beijing's Water Cube, the Olympic swimming complex designed to look as though it's made of glowing bubbles. And yet on this January night, Belmont has all the glamour. In the chlorinated half-light, Michael Phelps stands behind lane 4 adjusting a pair of black goggles, and he's about to do something amazing. Again.
In case you haven't noticed, Phelps, 23, is the world's greatest swimmer. Describing his career requires superlatives that haven't been invented, so let's stick with numbers: When he was 15, he competed in the Sydney Games, the youngest U.S. male Olympian since 1932. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly—not bad for his first international meet. The next March, still three months from his 16th birthday, he swam the event again at U.S. nationals and broke the world record, making him the youngest male swimmer ever to own one. Twenty-four more world records have followed; Phelps has broken his own 200 butterfly mark five times, once lowering it by an astonishing 1.62 seconds. He won six gold medals at the Athens Games and seven at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, and now the talk is of eight golds in Beijing. (Not that anybody's counting, but that would be one more than Mark Spitz won in Munich in '72.)
First, though, there is the Toyota Southern California Grand Prix at Belmont Plaza.
Phelps shrugs off his black North Face puffa; removes the hip-hop mainline from his ears. This is a short-course meet, and the pool is only 25 yards long rather than the Olympic size of 50 meters. Short course is intimate and showy; long course is imposing and grand—the traditional distance of world records. As the fastest qualifier, Phelps is introduced last, and as he steps onto the block he snaps his arms across his chest three times, a prerace ritual. Even though he's sporting a new Fu Manchu mustache, the scene is very familiar.
Except for one thing: This is the finals of the 100 breaststroke.
It's Phelps's Achilles' heel; an event he never competes in. And next to him, in lane 5, is U.S. Olympian Mark Gangloff, whose best event happens to be, well, this one. Like all sports, swimming has its unwritten rules. Here's one: You can win the 100 breaststroke or the 100 freestyle (which Phelps had done earlier in the meet), but you can't win them both. In elite competition the same person has never come close to taking these two events, and for good reason. Of the four strokes—butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle—breaststroke is the bastard child. It's lateral where the others are linear, a specialist's choreography of power legs, tricky timing and subtle hand position. Breaststrokers and sprint freestylers have about as much in common as kangaroos and leopards.
Phelps bends into his start. He's 6'4" and has size-14 feet that are so flexible, his toes actually wrap around the edges of the block. The starter bleeps, and the field explodes; when Phelps surfaces, he's almost at the opposite wall.
His race is over in 53.41 seconds, Phelps touched out by Gangloff's 53.09. At poolside a pale-haired, midsized man wearing a navy polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses stands with arms crossed. His face bears no emotion; he's simply watching so hard you can hear the gears whirring. This is Bob Bowman, 43, Phelps's coach. As Phelps vaults from the water and heads to the warm-down pool, Bowman's mouth curls into a Cheshire cat smile. Yes, his athlete lost a race. But everything's relative. Tonight, by almost beating one of the world's best breaststrokers, Phelps has served notice that unlike any other swimmer in history, he no longer has a weak stroke.
"That's one of the most impressive things I've ever seen him do," Bowman says, looking at the clock.
II. THE SPORT
Picture the winter predawn, sometime in January. Somewhere in the East, like Baltimore (where Phelps began his career) or Ann Arbor, Mich. (where he trains now). It's cold, for one thing. And dark. And when the alarm clock shrieks its owner awake at 5 a.m., his bed has never felt so warm. For swimmers, nothing epitomizes their sport so much as the feeling of diving into frigid water before sunrise. The serious ones do it most mornings of their careers. Later in the day, they're back for another two or three hours. Anything else—school, what passes for a social life—is arranged around these workouts.
For nonswimmers, the idea of spending that much time going back and forth, staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool as the chlorine eats into your skin, is the definition of hellish monotony. But the swimmers aren't bored.
It's not that they're unfamiliar with the concept of repetition. Rather, it's that they can swim or kick or pull their laps; they can do it with paddles, fins, buoys, weights or surgical tubing; over any distance, on any interval and in any combination of the above. And there are four strokes to think about, each as technical as dressage—and that's before they consider starts and turns, where the closest races are decided. ("Michael basically lost the 200 free in Athens on turns," Bowman says.) The fine-tuning is endless. "Right now I'm working on fixing my head position in freestyle," Phelps says. "It's too high. Even after 11 years, I have never swum it right. I'm still working on little things that are going to make a huge difference."
III. THE COACH
Ten o'clock on a mid-April night, and Chicago's Palmer House hotel is lit up, with media members milling in the bars and Olympians giving interviews and USOC officials checking names off lists. Beijing is less than four months away, and here is a last chance to interview the athletes whom, come August, America will suddenly want to know about. Which is to say, it's a final crack at Phelps. At a press conference earlier, one female reporter had asked him, "Can you give me two exercises people can do to get a swimmer's type body?"
"Well ... they could swim."
"After this I go to blackout mode," Phelps says, walking through the lobby with Bowman. "No one can get hold of me. I don't have to worry about anything, and I have no commitments—that's my favorite part. I just attend to what's coming up."
Before the bliss of Olympic immersion, however, Phelps is headed to Colorado Springs for one last brutality: a training camp at 6,000-foot altitude with several Bowman swimmers. "Seventy practices in 24 days," Phelps says. "By the end, we're at each other's throats. You learn to steer clear of people, there's so much emotion going on."
With that scenario in mind, it seems fitting that Bowman, conductor of this orchestra of pain, minored in music composition and majored in developmental psychology at Florida State. "Michael hates my sets," he acknowledges. Why? "They're hard. And the ones I like the most are the most painful." Phelps agrees: "My teammate Erik [Vendt] and I look at each other and go, God, not this one. You've got to be kidding me! What's he trying to do to us?"
If you went into a lab and mixed up the ingredients for the ideal coach, you'd invent someone like Bowman. A talented swimmer in college, he quit because he was driving himself nuts with his own incessant performance critiques. "I was coaching myself all the time," he recalls. "Well, I should've done this, and I could've done this better...." At the same time, he loved everything about the sport. Moving to the deck was a logical segue; Bowman inhaled what technical material he could get his hands on—not much in 1986—and then looked around for more. His eye landed on Paul Bergen, the coach who'd developed Tracy Caulkins, still considered by many the best all-around women's swimmer in U.S. history.
"I thought, This is a guy who knows what he's doing," Bowman recalls. "I wanted to work with him, but after the 1988 Olympics he quit coaching to train racehorses." What to do? Well, if you're Bowman, you travel to Napa Valley, buy a pair of knee-high boots and head for the stables.
"I'd clean the stalls and ask him about swimming," Bowman says, noting that along the way he also got hooked on horses. He currently owns and trains nine thoroughbreds. "The horses have taught me to be a better observer," he says, "because they can't tell you what they're feeling."
Phelps, however, can. As they wait to be seated in the hotel restaurant, Phelps is asked what it's like to swim 5,000 meters (more than three miles) for time, one of Bowman's semiregular requests. His face turns stony.
"I do not do that anymore. I can't.... I'm not. Those days are bye-bye. I could do that when I was young. But now I'm old. I'm old now. I'm old. Twenty-two. Almost 23."
"You can do a 3,000," Bowman says cajolingly.
"I won't do it," Phelps says, with a defiant shake of the head.
Bowman turns toward him. He's still smiling, but the smile has tightened. "You will do a 3,000."
"Absolutely not," Phelps says, heading into the restaurant. "I don't do what he says 100 percent of the time," he adds over his shoulder. "That's when he gets mad."
It's not Felix and Oscar exactly, because the odd clash over timed 3,000s aside, there's little antagonism. Since 1996, when they first encountered each other at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps was a talented but almost uncontrollable age-group swimmer and Bowman was the new, whip-cracking coach, there has been love and there has been loathing (not always in that order), but most of all there has been mutual respect. It's as though they're a pair of rally racers. Phelps is the driver, piloting a futuristic vehicle with an outsized engine and sick lines; Bowman is the navigator, unfurling computer models of the most efficient routes and best road conditions, knowing precisely which map has the most accurate topographic profile.
So it's surprising to learn that when Bowman recently named a horse after a swimmer, it wasn't Phelps but rather his teammates the Vanderkaay brothers. How come? "Well, Number 1, that's a lot of pressure to put on a horse," Bowman says. "And Number 2, this horse is too nice. The one that bites me I'll name Michael."
IV. THE PLAN
The fake Michael Phelps stands on the block above lane 1—and here we have a problem. He has been hired as a stand-in for a PowerBar TV commercial being shot at an indoor pool in Commerce, Calif., and though his hair, at least, is identical and he swings his arms convincingly while 45 technicians adjust the lighting, the real Phelps would never, ever be starting a race from the outside lane.
Actually, at this moment the real Phelps is crammed into a jerry-rigged sound studio in the pool's sauna, fully clothed in low-slung blue jeans, flip-flops and a PowerBar T-shirt. On his head is a Dodgers cap jammed down and backward. He yawns broadly.
"O.K., Michael," the director, standing next to him, says. "Project. Not exactly anger, but we need more energy. You're on the starting blocks. Intense. We need intense."
"They say I should be afraid because every swimmer in the water is out to get me," Phelps says, sounding slightly menacing. He pauses for a beat. "Fear is good."
"Down a little in register," the director commands, "almost as if you're whispering."
"Fear is good. Fear is good. Fear is good." Phelps gamely repeats his lines, with different inflections. Though perfectly serviceable, his delivery does not hint at a future acting career.
In the hallway behind him, a PowerBar executive turns to Marissa Gagnon, one of Phelps's agents from Octagon. "This is kind of a lot for him to do," he says, acknowledging the 15-hour workday that Phelps is putting in on the heels of a four-day competition; the PowerBaralooza of promotional duties that are part of the deal for an athlete whom CNBC has dubbed Madison Avenue's Golden Boy. Gagnon smiles. "Oh, he loves it," she says.
It's not really a lie. And even later, five hours into the shoot at 10 o'clock at night, when Phelps is handed six sheets of questions that need to be answered on camera so they can be aired at PowerBar's next corporate sales meeting—What are your goals? How do PowerBar products help you achieve your goals?—he remains an affable and polished pro.
It wasn't always this way. Certainly, Phelps can be forgiven for stumbling through his earliest press conferences. He was, after all, 15—and a young 15 at that, a gawky kid struggling with his parents' divorce. At swim meets he threw tantrums and goggles. In practice and in life he chafed at Bowman's relentless discipline. For all the credit due his mother, Debbie, his older sisters, Hilary and Whitney (both successful swimmers), and Bowman, the main architect of Phelps 2.0 has been his agent, Octagon's Peter Carlisle.
When they met in 2001, Phelps told Carlisle that he wanted nothing less than to "change the sport of swimming." Carlisle listened. And it's likely that Octagon's handling of Phelps's career will be a model for future Olympians. As Phelps heads into Beijing, he's a seven-figure industry—a first for any swimmer—with sponsors that, along with PowerBar, include AT&T, Omega watches, Speedo, Visa and the language software company Rosetta Stone. (And, yes, Phelps is using that last company's products to learn Mandarin. "Michael wants to interact with the Chinese people," Gagnon says.)
Carlisle's tour de force came in 2003. Reasoning (correctly) that a splashy pre-Athens deal linked to Spitz's seven golds would set off a media jamboree, he got Speedo to agree to a million-dollar bounty for at least equaling that number. And with that, Phelps's goal was largely realized. Because in this country nothing raises the profile of a sport like a couple of commas on a check.
V. THE SUIT
If there was ever a low-tech sport, you'd think it would be swimming. You've got water; you've got the human body. But wait: There's the suit. And when an unclipped fingernail can mean the difference between gold and not-so-gold, tinkering with this one variable makes sense. In the '70s, female suits were stripped of the built-in skirts that scooped up gallons on every turn. Next came spandex. Throughout the next two decades suits became ever tinier, leading to visions of a suitless future in which a swimmer's privates would merely be spritzed with rubberized paint. Instead, things went the other way. Skin moves around, people realized. It creates drag. Beginning in 1996, suits expanded to cover the entire body, and suddenly there was a lot of material to work with. So why not invent a new fabric covered in denticles, like a shark's skin? Why not laminate and truss and bond zippers and weld seams and otherwise make damn sure that the contours of the human body are wrestled into sleek submission?
The zenith came in February: Speedo's LZR Racer. To call this a swimsuit is to call the Space Shuttle a plane. Designed with input from NASA, fluid dynamics engineers, the avant-garde Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of the fashion label Comme des Gar√ßons, not to mention Phelps and Bowman, its arrival rocked the swimming world. Technological doping and unfair advantage were among the responses to its core-stabilizing, vibration-reducing polyurethane compression panels. "What we're finding is that swimmers who've worn the suit have dropped two percent off their best times," Bowman says. "Which is an enormous amount." Since its release, 48 world records have been set in the LZR. And when U.S. coach Mark Schubert predicted that any swimmer not wearing it "may end up at home watching on NBC," rival companies scrambled to create similar designs, and to stave off mutiny among their swimmers, none of whom intend to leave 2% in the locker room.
VI. THE POOL
There are pools and there are pools, but for swimmers there's one question: Is it fast? Fast equals world records. Take Athens, where surprisingly few were set. The pool was outdoors, which meant sun in a backstroker's eyes and headwinds in the sprints. Worse, it was shallow. Deep water absorbs turbulence, while shallow water deflects it. Shallow can also mean warm, and the perfect race temperature is cold, somewhere in the neighborhood of 76° Fahrenheit.
The Beijing pool has been engineered for greatness. Rumored to have cost $200 million, the Water Cube is a liquid temple in which heaviness has no place. Its very walls are ethereal, made of a translucent plastic that's only .008 of an inch thick. Though its design has simultaneously drawn raves for innovation and criticism that it's "not Chinese enough," among swimmers and coaches the verdict is in: "I've looked at the specs," says Bowman. "The venue is spectacular. It is very, very fast."
VII. THE OTHER
Personally, I don't think that what he is doing really has anything to do with what I did. I do think that what I did has a major impact on what he's trying to do. Therein lies the difference.
—MARK SPITZ to The Arizona Republic, June 6, 2008
"Michael's a different person than he was in Athens," Bowman says. "In 2004 he was still this relatively young kid who was going into something we didn't know anything about. Nobody had ever done it!" The uncharted water was Phelps's Olympic schedule; starting at the 2000 Games, a semifinal round was added, meaning that a finalist in any 50-, 100- or 200-meter event now races three times rather than two. There were nights in Athens when Phelps, still reeling from the finals of one race, was herded from the warm-down pool onto the medal stand, then back to the blocks for the semifinal of another event—all in less than 30 minutes. The extra workload is just one of the reasons that comparing Phelps with Spitz is impossible. It's beyond apples and oranges; it's more like apples and PowerBars.
While Spitz represented the cutting edge of his era, he swam without cap or goggles and in full, mustachioed splendor. Phelps will be shaved down to the last follicle and be as aerodynamic as a fuselage, and he'll be able to see, but even those advantages are offset by the depth of the competition and the scalding, Testarossa speed that defines 21st-century swimming.
Then, consider that in Munich, Spitz raced 13 times, including in four individual events—freestyle and butterfly sprints, with the 200 as his longest distance. In Athens, Phelps raced 17 times, in five individual events, in all four strokes, at distances up to 400 meters. And in Beijing, Phelps's schedule will again require him to swim at least 17 times, in the 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 free, 200 and 400 IM and three relays. As for career longevity, Spitz swam in two Games, a disappointing 1968 followed by the triumphal '72. Phelps made his debut in Sydney, then dominated Athens and isn't half finished. "I'll go one more," Phelps says, meaning that after Beijing he's up for London in 2012. The Spitz-Phelps competition is neat, and it's sexy. But with all due respect, it's already over.
VIII. THE MOMENT
Eight years ago Phelps dived into the water for his first Olympic race. Since then he has had eight years of training, eight years of planning, eight years of waiting. Eight years to grow in every conceivable way. And though no one can be sure what will happen, we know this: Come 8/8/08 Michael Phelps will be more ready than he has ever been. The next day, when the swimming begins, he will walk to his block and wipe it with his towel. He'll be listening to hip-hop, and then he will stop. He'll snap his arms three times, and his mind will slip into that instant, and everything else will fall away. And as he stands on the block he'll glance at that cross on the bottom of the pool, and it will look oddly pristine to him, as though he's never seen it before. He'll step forward. He'll reach down. And then he will go.
See what makes Michael Phelps so efficient in a photo gallery narrated by Brian Cazeneuve at SI.com/Olympics.
The fastest qualifier, Phelps steps onto the block, extends his 6'7" WINGSPAN and snaps his arms across his chest three times, a ritual. The scene is familiar except for one thing: This is a final of the breaststroke, his weakest stroke.
Phelps is asked what it's like to swim more than three miles for time, one of Bowman's semiregular requests. "I do not do that anymore," he says. "I'M OLD NOW. I'm old. Almost 23."
"Right now I'm working on fixing my head position in freestyle. It's too high. Even after 11 years, I've NEVER SWUM IT RIGHT."
Phelps will swim at least 17 RACES in Beijing. Comparing him with Spitz is beyond apples and oranges; it's more like apples and PowerBars.