One-hundred-and-five days before the beginning of the end, Michael Phelps appears as relaxed as a man whose every move is being recorded by cameras and curious eyes can be.
Wearing a three-piece black suit with a purple tie that fits the venue, the tallest, richest, and most famous guy in the club level of M&T Bank Stadium fetches his mother, Debbie, a glass of white wine from the bar, and sips a bottle of beer, a wet cocktail napkin draped over the label. As he chats with a blonde with legs as long as an Olympic pool, who may or may not be his date—Phelps doesn’t talk about his love life—NBC’s cameras roll. They’re documenting his life leading up to London.
They’re documenting history.
Phelps himself senses the finality of his journey; he’s been keeping a journal for more than a year.
“To accomplish what we did in Beijing required so much, mentally and physically,” Phelps tells us from a training facility in Colorado. “We did our best to enjoy each and every moment, but, the reality is, it was hard to truly appreciate what we were doing because we needed to keep our minds focused on the next event. With London being my last Olympics, I am trying to enjoy every minute of the entire experience. I just want to take it all in this last time around.”
The guests at the gala surround him and converse in small circles, sneaking not-so-subtle glances at the only person in the room whose body is flawless enough for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
Four years ago, this event, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club’s quadrennial fundraiser, was held at Meadowbrook, the Mt. Washington facility where Phelps first awkwardly kicked, splashed, and thrashed in the water, scared to get his face wet.
As the city—his city—glistens in the April twilight behind the soaring windows, four years seem like a lifetime ago, before Beijing transformed Phelps from mere superstar to global icon, from, as his lifelong coach Bob Bowman says, “a kid to a man.”
Billions of people watched those games, captivated by the drama unfolding nightly, each gold-medal performance a new episode of a miniseries whose ending seemed too perfect even for fiction.
Phelps’s preparation leading up to Beijing was intense. He left the 2004 Olympics in Athens with six gold medals, two bronze, and an appetite for more. During the next four years he trained relentlessly, singularly focused on doing what no person had done before.
Once he accomplished it—winning an unprecedented eight gold medals in eight events—that focus wavered. He hosted Saturday Night Live, flew off to Vegas with his buddies, and landed himself in hot water after a photo of him partying Snoop Dogg-style ran in a British tabloid.
This time, the Olympic results seem much less preordained.
“Prior to Beijing, Bob and I had gone five years without taking a day off,” he says. “That included birthdays, Christmases, Sundays. I think after Beijing I just needed a break from the daily swimming routine so I started playing a lot of golf. I’ll be the first one to admit it, I wasn’t putting the time in the water, and it obviously showed in my results. But nobody could force me back in the pool, not Bob, my mom, or my friends. I had to find the passion again. And I did, and we’ve been working towards London ever since.”
The world will watch again when the Olympic swimming competition begins July 28, because, as everyone in the posh club level feels on a visceral level, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Michael Phelps.
The greatest swimmer of all time first took to the water like a fish to land.
“He came to our regular lesson program when he was about five,” says Cathy Bennett, whose program, now renamed the Michael Phelps Swim School, has taught kids to swim for decades. “He was not all that comfortable in the water. He used every excuse in the book: ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ ‘I have a stomachache.’ So finally I was like, ‘Michael, your mom signed you up, we’re doing this.’”
The idea of Michael Phelps being uncomfortable in the water is difficult to fathom, like trying to imagine Brooks Robinson being allergic to leather.
“He didn’t like to get his face wet,” Bennett says. “So I said, ‘You’re going to do everything we’re doing, but on your back.’ He learned a lot of good backstrokes.”
You could say that.
Phelps’s natural competitiveness often was difficult to channel—his mother recalls several goggle-throwing episodes following second-place finishes—but it also drove him to improve. By the time he was eight, he was starring on the Meadowbrook Tomatoes swim team. When Bowman first saw Phelps swim three years later, he could tell his potential was immense.
“If you go and look at the Preakness horses, they look a certain way,” Bowman says. “They have a certain body type. Michael’s put together like an ideal swimmer. You could see when he was in the water he had a tremendous feel, meaning he moved through the water without excess motion. He was efficient.”
At age 15, Phelps made the 2000 Olympic team, the youngest U.S. male swimmer to do so in 68 years. He finished fifth in the 200 butterfly.
“I remember sitting in our dining room after Sydney and Bob asking, ‘What’s next?’” says Debbie Phelps, recalling a conversation in her Rodgers Forge home. “He said, ‘I want to set world records.’ The only thing I wanted to make sure of was that he graduated high school, and that he had a group of friends around him that was still there after the Olympics.”
She succeeded on both fronts. Phelps earned his diploma from Towson High School and remains close with many of his childhood friends.
“He still stays true to who he is,” says Steve Skeen, who’s known Phelps since fourth grade. “He’s broadened the people he talks to, but he still hangs out with me and some of our friends from high school. He’s still Mike, when it comes down to it.”
While his classmates stressed over prom dates and college admissions, Phelps set a goal so lofty it would have been laughable if it hadn’t actually come true.
In 2002, 16-year-old Michael Phelps found himself in a conference room at a downtown Towson law firm. He, Bowman, and some family friends were interviewing potential agent Peter Carlisle.
“They were asking me questions, and most were coming from people other than Michael,” Carlisle says. “When it was my turn, I turned to Michael and said, ‘What do you want to accomplish outside the pool?’ He was nervous, he had dropped his plate of food earlier, but when I asked that, it was very clear that this was something he had thought about. He said, ‘I want to see swimming on SportsCenter.’”
A decade later, Phelps has starred in two SportsCenter commercials.
“The goal I had was to change the sport of swimming and take it to a new level,” Phelps says. “It’s amazing to see how its popularity has increased over the years.”
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2005, USA Swimming saw its post-Olympic membership jump by 7.2 percent. After Beijing, it grew by 11.3 percent. From 2004 to 2007, NBC televised 14 hours of non-Olympic swimming. From 2008-2012, that airtime increased to 35.5 hours.
“I think he has changed our sport more dramatically than any other person or entity in history,” says Rowdy Gaines, NBC’s swimming analyst. “We covered four grands prix this year. The four that we did were only the ones that Michael decided to swim in. We literally went to him before they started and said, ‘Which ones are you going to go to?’ Although Michael was the main theme, everyone in swimming benefits from that.”
No one, however, has cashed in more than Phelps. He’s made a reported $40 million in his career, and his endorsement deals with Visa, Subway, and Under Armour are ubiquitous. He used the $1 million bonus he earned from Speedo for his performance in Beijing to start the Michael Phelps Foundation, which pro-motes swimming and active lifestyles, especially to children.
“It’s been great to see how much the foundation has grown,” he says. “We developed the IM Program [named after his signature event, the individual medley] to help get kids water safe, encourage them to live an active and healthy lifestyle, and educate them on the power of goal setting. We started running the program in six Boys and Girls Clubs, including Harford County, and now we are in 28 clubs and working with Special Olympic teams in seven different countries. I’d like to see us continue expanding.”
Phelps’s marketability is so strong it withstood the 2009 marijuana incident with minimal financial damage.
“It’s impossible to know what opportunities didn’t come because of it,” Carlisle says. “I’m sure it had an effect, but most of the sponsors he had he still has, and he’s added to it. Fortunately, his brand has been resilient.”
So, you could say the smoke surrounding the bong photo cleared quickly.
“This is a very loving and very forgiving city,” says Rick Dempsey, the Oriole fan favorite who’s befriended Phelps. “It’s not like New York, it’s not like Philadelphia, where if you have a bad season or you have a bad stretch the fans will start yelling and screaming and booing you. You give Baltimore 100 percent every day, no matter what the outcome is, they appreciate it. This town is kind of craving something good to go on athletically. Michael Phelps is the biggest thing to happen to this city in a long time.”
Oddly, his hometown of Baltimore, where he’s the biggest fish in a small pool, is the rare place where Phelps can relax.
“There are probably two places in the world he can go without being constantly hounded,” Carlisle says. “One would be New York, and the other is Baltimore. He’s got a relationship with the city. People are respectful of him, because they see enough of him for the most part. It just seems to fit.”
That comfort, which he finds in watching his beloved Ravens and Orioles, in gathering for monthly family meals (chocolate-chip pancakes are a favorite) at his mom’s house, or grabbing a drink with friends near his new place in Canton, is why he returned home to prepare for the final laps of his career.
“Baltimore is home for me, it’s where my heart is,” he says. “Baltimore is filled with people who work hard and take pride in their work. I’m very appreciative of the support the city and the entire state has provided me over the years, especially when I moved back after Beijing. The people in and around Baltimore have been great, they do respect my privacy, which I really appreciate.”
Since moving from Fells Point to his place near O’Donnell Square, Phelps sightings have increased at establishments like Mama’s on the Half Shell and Looney’s.
“We’ll go get a drink somewhere, and they’ll be a swarm around him,” Skeen says. “For the most part, people are respectful. The other day we were walking the dogs and a girl was running by, she stopped in her tracks and took her iPhone out and was like, ‘Hey, can I take a picture of you?’ I think he appreciates it and likes the attention.”
Phelps certainly doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, especially on Twitter.
“Happy valentines day tweeps!!! Does any one wanna be my valentine??” he playfully asked his nearly 200,000 followers in February. Responses ranged from amusing (“We could make little swimmer babies”) to Misery-like (“WE BELONG TOGETHER!!”).
With a six-pack and biceps that makes women swoon, the 6-foot-4 Phelps undeniably is a sex symbol. He’s constantly asked about his dating life.
“I hope that I am lucky enough to get married one day and have children,” he says. “I really enjoy kids—I’m a kid at heart myself. Right now, I’m enjoying the time I have with my family. There will be plenty of time for starting my own family down the road.”
Baltimore’s most eligible bachelor a family man? Not quite yet.
“We cross paths quite often, whether it be at a nightclub or a restaurant, like RA [Sushi],” Dempsey says. “We do a couple of fun things, let’s put it that way. He’s still a single guy, he’s young, and he’s energetic. He’s got a lot of life to him. He’s a fun-loving guy, but he’s also serious about swimming and being the best in the world.”
Phelps’s day begins at 6 a.m. Three times a week he’s in the Meadowbrook pool by 7, swimming for two hours. After practice, he eats a famously calorie-packed breakfast and rests for the 90-minute afternoon swim. The “off” days include one pool session followed by heavy dry-land training.
“Growing up, if my sisters and I weren’t at home, more than likely we would be at Meadowbrook,” he says. “NBAC is like my second home. Outside of my time in Ann Arbor, I’ve spent my entire career swimming at Meadowbrook and wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s pretty cool to be practicing in the same pool that I first learned to swim in.”
Phelps prepared for Beijing in Ann Arbor, where he attended the University of Michigan. Bowman, who coached the college’s swim team, was able to create “controlled” practice conditions for him.
“I do think the training environment in Meadowbrook can be problematic because there are so many people that move in and out of there,” Bowman says. “They all want to see him now, because every time someone comes in they feel like it’s the last time they’re ever going to see him train. That can be a little distracting.”
At 27, near the end of a male swimmer’s peak, Phelps has had enough of the monotony of his daily workout routine, of the rigid discipline needed to maintain his world-class status. After London, he’s hanging up his goggles; don’t expect him to look back.
“After I retire, I want to take time for myself, golfing, and doing things I haven’t been able to experience,” he says. “I’ve never really taken a vacation. I want to travel and experience the world. I know that may sound strange, but while I have been to a lot of great countries, I’ve only seen the airport, pool, and hotel. We never have a chance to get out and explore. I’ll always be involved in swimming, just in a different way.”
In the first full week of May, those carefree days seemed far off. The day after 60 Minutes aired a piece on him, he was in New York, where he received the humanitarian award from the American Apparel and Footwear Association for establishing his foundation. That night he visited with Jimmy Fallon on Late Night, and on Tuesday, he met with Visa and held a live chat on Facebook.
He was back to Baltimore for a day before heading to Charlotte, where he finished second in the 200-meter butterfly at a grand prix meet, after which he jetted to Colorado Springs for weeks of training at 6,000 feet.
But will this final, intense push be enough to compensate for years of subpar effort?
“After Beijing, I lacked the motivation to train,” he says. “I can say over the last three years my performance was horrendous. It is what it is. I know what I have to do to change that.”
Considering his age, the demands on his time, and his slow start, can he?
“I think he’s swimming as well as he did in the months leading up to Beijing,” NBC’s Gaines says. “If Michael wants to win every event he swims in, he’s capable of doing it, but the question is: Is he still as driven to perform at that level? I think he is, because he wants to go out with a bang. The guy hates to lose more than he likes to win.”
Whether he wins the three medals he needs to surpass Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina to become the most decorated Olympian in history, or whether he finishes fourth in all his events, Phelps’s career is taking its final breaths. In a way, the results in London are irrelevant—the magnitude of what he’s accomplished can’t be undone.
“I’m taking my family to London, because I want them to say they saw Michael Phelps swim his last races,” Gaines says. “I want them to be able to tell their kids and their grandkids that they saw the great Michael Phelps swim, win, lose, or draw.”
Next month, he’ll leave England as a 27-year-old retiree with a jealousy-inducing number of golden years ahead of him, and, eventually, when the last photos are snapped, the interviews concluded, and the commercials shot, he’ll return home.