I’m torn today about whether to write about a champ or a chump. I think I’ll go with the champ—Michael Phelps—because there just aren’t that many people who actually care about the chump—LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens. Plus, Bivens isn’t likely to have her job for very much longer and I can explain why she had to be fired when the LPGA actually gets around to it—probably some time next week when the U.S. Women’s Open is over.
So, on to Phelps.
He’s back, maybe not quite back to where he was last summer when he was the world’s most dominant athlete, but back to being the most compelling figure in his sport—one who will likely win four or five events at the world championships next month.
But that isn’t what’s really interesting about Phelps right now. He is, in fact, a wonder in the water, who is already back swimming close to his best times after only five months of training that followed a six month break. Bet this: If he doesn’t break the world record in the 100 meter butterfly this week (the only record he doesn’t hold in the events he regularly swims) he’ll break it in Rome at the world championships.
He is a unique talent who also has a gift—and it is a gift—for competing, something that was evident when he came out of the water Wednesday in Indianapolis growling about not swimming better and about the latest souped-up suits which may have knocked some of his friends off the world championships team.
What is going to be fascinating about Phelps the next three years is seeing if he can stay motivated. My bet is yes, but it’s not a lock. The reason he and his coach Bob Bowman have decided to have him swim different events leading up to London is to try to avoid boredom. There is nothing more boring than a swimming workout. Even long distance runners have something to look at other than a lane line and the walls.
Trust me on this: Bowman and Phelps have a plan right now on what events he’s going to swim in London. It might be subject to change depending on how he swims the next three years but the plan is already in place.
I had the chance to have lunch with Bowman, Phelps and Debbie Phelps seven years ago in Baltimore. This was when Phelps was just beginning to emerge as the next swimming star and we discussed the possibility of a book leading up to the ’04 Olympics.
I remember two things vividly about that lunch. One was Bowman explaining to me THEN that the plan was already in place for the next three Olympics: do as well as possible in Athens; peak in Beijing and then swim one more Olympics—we didn’t know the site back then—with a different program in ’12 because he knew that asking a swimmer to simply do the same thing over and over again was probably impossible.
I have stood back and watched in amazement as the plan has been carried out almost step-for-step as Bowman described it back then,
My only memory is of my attempt to explain to the group why it would be difficult to market a book on a swimmer. “The only swimmer anyone outside the swimming culture is Mark Spitz,” I said.
“But this,” Debbie Phelps said, “is a baby Spitz.”
“Oh mom, please, come on, stop it,” Michael said—causing me to instantly like him.
I dropped Debbie Phelps a note shortly after Beijing reminding her of that lunch. “Turns out you were wrong,” I wrote. “Michael’s WAY better than Spitz.”
What was disappointing to me wasn’t that I didn’t write the book he eventually “co-wrote,” after the Olympics—I simply had too much on my plate then even if asked—but that the book was clearly written by a non-swimmer. It had none of the detail needed to make people understand just how extraordinary Phelps’s achievement was. There were sentences that said things like, “today Bob had me swim 10x200 fly,” without further explanation. You see, you CAN’T swim 10x200 fly, you just can’t. People needed to understand how remarkable that simple-sounding set truly was. The book should have sold WAY more than it did.
I know Phelps has made some mistakes since then—and it didn’t help that his agents totally mis-handled the bong incident with their amateurish attempt to bribe the London tabloid—but I really like him. I like the way he competes, I like the fact that he’s still motivated and I like the fact that he’s loyal to his sport.
Watching him the next three years will be both fun and fascinating. And don’t bet against him no matter what he swims in London.