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Father figure coach gets most out of Phelps

WP:  Bowman's hard-nosed strategy keys swimmer's gold medal chances
Santa Clara XXXVII International Swim Meet
Michael Phelps credits a lot of his success to his coach Bob Bowman. "He's taken me from a little boy and gotten me to where I am today," Phelps says.Robert Laberge / Getty Images
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The coach has already chewed out two of his swimmers for arriving late to the afternoon practice: "I asked you to be here at 4:20. What's the story?"

Now, after lecturing the whole group about how the Olympics are right around the corner and they better not screw up there, he is ready to begin poolside calisthenics. "Spread out and let's get started," the coach, Bob Bowman, says. "Jumping jacks. Go."

But as the others start, Bowman's multiple gold medal hopeful, Michael Phelps, whom Bowman has mentored since he was a boy, is taking his sweet time getting his T-shirt off. "Stop!" Bowman calls out icily in the cavernous pool at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

"We will all start together," he says, raising his voice and turning toward Phelps. "When I say 'go,' you're ready to go!"

"Ready?" he shouts. "Go!"

This week, as Maryland's Michael Phelps begins his quest for athletic immortality at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in California, and at next month's Olympic Games, he does so with a tough, inventive coach who has been father figure and comrade to a gifted swimmer and a major beneficiary of his fame.

Coach and athlete, mentor and student, they embark on the most momentous weeks of their lives, in a relationship that has evolved over almost a decade, each man the creation of the other.

Bowman, 39, has made Phelps the most talked-about swimmer in a generation, carefully crafting the exquisite machine that is Phelps's body and overseeing his development from child to man.

Phelps, 19, who could win seven gold medals at the Athens Games next month, has made Bowman, once an unknown figure in the jealous and competitive world of coaching, the most celebrated swimming czar in the country.

"He's taken me from a little boy and gotten me to where I am today," Phelps says.

The goal of seven gold medals would for the first time equal the unprecedented feat of Mark Spitz at the 1972 Munich Games. It also would earn Phelps the $1 million bonus prize that has been offered by the Speedo swimwear company, his chief sponsor.

Bowman, who has had an Olympic strategy in his head since last summer, has said he won't enter Phelps in any race where he doesn't have a good chance for a gold medal. He also says Phelps's performance at the trials could alter the plan.

If it seems that the quest for seven gold medals is too much, Bowman might forgo it. "Three gold medals is better than a bunch of silvers," he says. If it became clear that Phelps was spread too thin, "then we might make that decision."

Phelps is entered in six of the 11 events at the trials: the 400- and 200-meter individual medleys, and the 200-meter butterfly, in which he holds world records; the 200-meter freestyle, in which he holds the American record; and the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter backstroke, in which he is the world's second-best.

The three Olympic relay events, the 400 medley, 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle, in which Phelps could compete in Athens, are not on the trials program.

In the end, Bowman laughs: "If Michael doesn't do well, it'll be my fault. If he does well it'll be because he's a great athlete. And that's fine. That's how it always is."

Bowman, who loves the tactical aspects of the sport, had to carefully weigh his swimmer's prodigious strength and stamina against the grueling pace of competing in preliminaries, semifinals and finals in multiple events. He could still scratch Phelps from any event at the last minute.

The eight-day trials start Wednesday in Long Beach, Calif., and on one night, July 12, Phelps could be called on to swim three events in a single 2 1/2-hour session.

But he has done that before, and he has infinite trust in Bowman's calculations.

Drawn to Coaching

Their lives have been intertwined for eight years, an unusually long affiliation in swimming. It is one that has changed as Phelps has grown, and is likely to change more after the Olympics. Phelps, who now lives with his mother near Towson, could then be world famous, and Bowman starts a new coaching job at the University of Michigan on Sept. 1.

Bowman began teaching Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club when Phelps was a skinny 11-year-old who was being raised by his mother after she and her husband divorced.

An intense, cerebral and ambitious man who is unmarried and fiercely dedicated to his work, Bowman had been a bit of a vagabond -- he still loves staying in hotels -- having served in numerous coaching jobs across the country before landing in Baltimore in 1996.

A native of tiny Clover, S.C., where his mother's family once raised cotton, and where football and golf rule, Bowman instead found his calling first in classical music composition, which he studied in college, and then swimming. He preferred the latter, he says, because the people were nicer.

Just under 6 feet tall, with Ben Franklin-style glasses and short, light-colored hair that is starting to gray, Bowman says his southern accent only emerges when he is talking to his mother on the phone. He can quote Winston Churchill, admires the music of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, and is easily bored.

Bowman swam competitively in college, and has said that he was more diligent than even Phelps. "I tried harder than Michael Phelps ever did in training, I guarantee you," he says. "I was more conscientious, more focused, gave up more." But "I sucked," he says, and as a student of child psychology he found himself drawn to coaching.

And although he can be stern, critical and sarcastic with Phelps and his other swimmers -- a taskmaster swinging a digital stopwatch on a black lanyard -- Bowman has deep affection, and sympathy, for the young man he calls "Big Dog."

Though he is ambivalent about the notion that he is a father figure, his role in Phelps's adolescence has been pivotal. Phelps says that aside from his mother, Bowman knows him better than anyone, and credits the coach with making him the swimmer he is.

"Once I moved to his level when I was 11," the swimmer says, "he sort of took my stroke and redid it all and sort of took it from ground one and built it up and it is what it is."

Bowman has been present in Phelps's life since the days when he would drive Phelps from practice to school, listen to his troubles, and send him inspirational e-mails.

He helped teach Phelps how to tie a necktie, and watched his first national television interview, in which the 15-year-old swimmer -- who is now a sports celebrity -- sat swiveling like a kid on a CNN studio chair.

Their cars, Phelps's Cadillac Escalade -- the product of the millions he is earning in endorsement money -- and Bowman's Chevy Trail Blazer, are the same color.

They have made a swimming video together. Both are represented by the same sports marketing agency, Octagon, in McLean. And Bowman has earned top national coaching accolades as his swimmer has won races.

"We're probably closer personally because I have been with him so long," Bowman says. "And it probably in some aspects hurts the relationship."

With the absence of Phelps's father, from whom the swimmer has been estranged, Bowman became an important male figure in the athlete's life, acting as confidant, counselor, and exemplar, as well as coach.

"We tend to get involved in areas of each other's life where we probably wouldn't if we were [just] coach and swimmer," Bowman says. "Boundaries are crossed that probably sometimes should not be crossed."

And that can make the job of coaching more complicated. "It's essential that coaches and swimmers have a separation," he says. "I'm not here to be his friend. I'm here to be his coach. However, he might tell you I'm his friend because sometimes probably I am. We're close. But I don't want to be too close. Hard to do."

Bowman says that as Phelps has matured, the coach has widened the boundaries between them, and tried to cede the swimmer more decisions. There are also frictions between them, and heated exchanges, that arise because one is a teenaged athlete and the other is a driven practitioner of coaching.

But Bowman also believes his tenure has helped Phelps. Mainly, Bowman has sold him on the idea that if he kept his focus on swimming he would achieve tremendous success. Bowman set goals, talked about possibilities, and got Phelps to dream of greatness.

"Bob's taught me to do that," Phelps says. "Ever since I've been with him. It's been something that I've done every year for every meet."

Bowman also has been aggressively protective of his swimmer, ejecting, on three occasions, one magazine photographer and two TV crews from practice sessions for boorish or insensitive behavior.

He left one TV crew member in tears, wailing, "Why are you being so mean?" He called another station's headquarters and yelled: "Don't ever send the C team here again!"

He says they never did.

A Thinking Man

Dawn was breaking outside the tan cinderblock of Building 87 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center here one morning last month, and the coach was headed from his spare quarters in Room 216, just above the maintenance shop, in search of coffee.

It was ridiculous that you couldn't get a cup of coffee on the site of this former U.S. Air Force base until the dining hall opened at 7 a.m. And the coach lived on coffee.

Bowman was wearing white sneakers, blue shorts, and a gray fleece that bore the logo of USA Swimming, the sport's U.S. governing body, which is also located in the complex.

He was in a hurry, because there is never enough time, and because even though it was 5:30, Michael Phelps, bunked in the room next door, and eight other swimmers coached by Bowman at the North Baltimore club were already headed to the pool.

Bowman, Phelps and Co., were in town for 18 days of altitude training at the foot of the eastern range of the brown, snow-topped Rockies. Colorado Springs is 6,000 feet above sea level, and research has shown the skeptical Bowman that such training increases the number and size of red blood cells, which boosts endurance. All nine hope to make the Olympic team at the trials.

It was also a quiet place, and far removed from the building Olympic hoopla. "You get to focus on swimming," he said, as he headed for a nearby convenience store, where he bought a tankard of coffee that said "Big Brew" on the side. "Just a good place for them to do their thing. I don't know if it's a good place for me to do my thing. It's boring as hell."

Three training sessions a day -- day after day -- left plenty of time to think, and worry, and plan. Bowman loves to plan.

He has a four-year training plan in his head, and detailed, one-year plans on paper -- the latest is up on the wall in his small office beside the snack bar at the pool back in Baltimore. There are also seasonal plans, two for each year, and daily plans and single workout plans scribbled on yellow legal pads piled in a file cabinet, also back in Baltimore.

"He's always thinking about what's going to help the group . . . get better and really achieve what they want," Phelps has said. "He definitely puts a lot of thinking into his practices, and a lot of thinking into his workouts."

The plans involve complex sets of swimming drills, and peaks and valleys of training intensity that is "tapered," or honed, just before a big meet. It is like a gigantic mathematical equation that the coach hopes, in the end, produces the correct answer.

For Bowman, the right answer will be the perfectly prepared Michael Phelps -- his 6-foot-4, 200-pound body so well tuned and conditioned that the coach will see it when he swims. He calls it "the look." He will see it in Phelps's eyes, which will be like those of an eager thoroughbred, in the cut of the layered sinews of his back and limbs, and in the way he moves through the water.

"It's exactly like a racehorse," says Bowman, who owns, studies and races horses in Maryland. "If you saw Secretariat on Belmont day, you knew he was going to do something special."

With the look, Phelps appears "smooth in the water, he rides high in the water," Bowman said. "If he was a horse we'd say he's 'on the muscle' or 'muscled up.' His eyes are bright and clear. When you see him swimming is when you really tell."

Sometimes the coach has to wait, and pray, for the look, "Please, come on, come on." Then he will spot it, and will say to himself: "Okay, there it is. . . . We're where we should be."

Bowman wasn't expecting it here last month. It was too early. Still, when he greeted the sleepy-looking Phelps in the quiet of the pool that morning, he looked him over, without a word, as carefully as he might a horse. Pacing in silence, he looked over the others, too, as they plunged into the water to start the workouts. The eyed him back.

He had taken off his fleece, under which he was wearing a black, long-sleeved T-shirt with the sleeves pushed up to his forearms. Later, Dominick Szabo, 22, one of his other swimmers, joked from the pool:

"Bob, I don't know if I like you in black."

"Why?" Bowman asked.

"I don't know," Szabo said. "You look like Death, waiting to strike."

Timing Is Everything

The third practice of the day was scheduled to start at 4:20 p.m. At least that's when Bowman had told everyone to arrive.

He already was irritated at Phelps, who had napped during a break and shown up late for the second morning session.

No more naps, he had said to Phelps at lunch. He had also been upset with another swimmer for a poor finish in one of the morning drills. "You can't do that!" he had hollered, his voice echoing in the pool. "Get your hand on the wall!"

Now, when two members of the group showed up at 4:26, he assembled everyone for a talk.

"I understand that this is challenging," he said as they watched him somberly. "And I understand that about this time of day the last thing you want to do is come back here and do this."

But this is how the Olympic trials and the Olympic Games will be, he said, a series of "tedious, precise things that have to happen."

"And if you start blowing them off because you just don't feel like it, you're going to be missing opportunities," he said. "Times for starting practice are not optional. They are not guidelines. They are when your ass is going to be here."

They were now several minutes behind schedule, he complained.

He told them they were not permitted to do what they wanted, when they wanted.

"That's not how this game is played," he said. "You get to Athens, it's going to be their game the way they want it played, and you either play it that way or you don't play."

"You better be ready," he said, "because it's going to come and it ain't going to wait on you."

The swimmers went back to their exercises, as Bowman called out the routines he wanted. Phelps watched him warily. As the minutes passed, and the swimmers began to sweat and grimace, Bowman began to scatter compliments. The tension eased.

Earlier, he had stood at poolside, near a spot where black letters in the floor tile said, "Deep Water," and talked about the future.

"The worst thing you can do is look back and have regrets," he said. "If I do everything that I can and coach to the best of my ability and I think the plan is sound and we've followed it and it doesn't work out, well, I'm just not smart enough.

"The worst thing would be to think back and say, 'Maybe I could have done this better,' " he said.

"I'm just trying to do every little piece of this as well as I can, and hopefully it'll add up to something good."