Michael Phelps knows he’ll be going to his fifth Olympic Games next month. Phelps officially qualified for Rio on Wednesday, by winning the 200-meter butterfly, a race he described as the hardest swim of his career.
He followed that up with a win in the 200-meter individual medley late Friday at the time the U.S. swimming trials in Omaha, and also qualified for the finals for the 100-meter fly on Saturday.
The wins had meaning far beyond the pool — a symbolic victory over the personal problems he wrestled while becoming the most decorated Olympian in history.
Smiles And Tears
You could forgive Phelps for feeling ho-hum about medal ceremonies, like the one after Wednesday’s victory. He has smiled and waved through so many in his career. Twenty-two of them at the Olympics alone, 18 of them for gold medals.
But Wednesday night, his toothy grin was toothier than ever. More telling, his coach of two decades, Bob Bowman, stood nearby and did something he’d never done through all the ceremonial trumpet fanfares.
“This is the first time I cried,” says Bowman. “That’s what it means to me.”
No American male swimmer has ever gone to five Olympics. But that accomplishment was only part of the reason for the grinning and crying. While Michael Phelps has always made swimming, and winning, seem easy, getting to this latest win was anything but.
In a joint press conference for Phelps and Bowman after the race, a reporter asked Bowman what coaching a five-time Olympian means to him. Before Bowman could answer, Phelps did.
“It means we’ve been through a helluva lot,” Phelps said with a smile, adding, for emphasis, “a helluva lot together.”
Triumph And Discord
Obviously they’ve been through incredible triumphs. None more so than in 2008. That’s when Phelps won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Summer Games.
Bowman told The New York Times that Phelps probably should have retired after that. But there was pressure — from corporate sponsors, from swimming officials, and fans — to keep going. Phelps did, and for awhile he kept smashing records.
But that post-Beijing period also was a time of controversy and discord. A photo emerged of Phelps smoking pot. Phelps and Bowman often clashed over Phelps’ lack of interest in training as the 2012 Olympics in London approached.
“Going into 2012, it was like pulling teeth,” Phelps said this spring. “It was brutal. You could barely get me to the pool.”
Despite that, Phelps still won six medals in London. He looked happy during the games. But Phelps says that wasn’t the case.
“In 2012, I wanted nothing else to do with the sport. [I was] completely finished and ready to move on and retire. Didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was just finished. Over it,” he said.
Phelps did retire, but he found life difficult without the structure of swimming. In 2014, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunk driving. It was his second DUI arrest. The first was when he was 19. This one, however, convinced him to seek help. He entered a treatment facility in Arizona for six weeks.
It changed his life.
A Relationship With His Father
Among other things, his therapy helped him repair a broken relationship with his dad, Fred. The two became estranged after Phelps’ parents divorced when Phelps was 9.
At an Olympic media gathering this spring in Los Angeles, a relaxed Phelps talked about some of other positive changes in his life. Getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Johnson; the birth of their first child; and the effects of not drinking alcohol for over a year.
“I see a complete change in my body,” Phelps said. “[I have a] completely clear head. [I] don’t have a headache which is really awesome sometimes when you wake up. I’m actually happy every day. I’m actually able to be productive every day. That’s something I’m very proud of.”
Phelps’ recovery culminated this week with the 200 butterfly win in Omaha. Thrilled with the result, he wasn’t happy with the actual race. He says he didn’t feel good and the winning time, 1.54.84, was more than three seconds slower than the world record he set in 2009.
Asked afterwards at the press conference whether those record times are gone for good, Phelps and Bowman disagreed. Certainly it’s not a first in their sometime stormy relationship. Bowman implied he thinks the record-busting days are over.
“You were in your prime of your prime and everything was going right,” Bowman said directly to Phelps. “So it’s kind of, y’know, a different situation.”
“I don’t know,” Phelps responded, talking over Bowman, “I think every record is beatable.”
“Yeah,” Bowman said, “[at] some point.”
Phelps didn’t say anything else, but his eye roll was visible from the back of the room.
One Last Time
The two will work together, of course, over the next month, to get Phelps ready for Rio and, they hope, justify Phelps’ decision to come back for one final Olympics.
Phelps, at the earlier event in Los Angeles, said the decision was motivated in part by what happened at the last Olympics.
“I wanted to do it the way I should’ve done it in 2012,” he said. “I wanted to prepare for an Olympic Games like I should’ve. I’ve said this so many times – I didn’t want to have a ‘what if.’ Twenty years later looking back on London, I think I would’ve been disappointed with myself and I would’ve let myself down for how I prepared myself. And that’s something I never want to live with.”
And so Phelps, with Bowman, will make the effort, to see if the new Michael Phelps can be the old one in the pool.
One last time.