Testing the limits

Testing the limits

After overcoming personal struggles, Michael Phelps has his sights set on an unprecedented fifth Olympic Games

Published on June 9, 2016

For an instant, the Olympic champion glances up at the surveillance camera in the waterfront police station where he has been brought in handcuffs for processing.

He’s in a room where Cpl. Jerome Hamilton of the Maryland Transportation Authority’s Tunnel Command is giving him a breathalyzer test that will show how intoxicated he is.

It is 2:27 a.m., Sept. 30, 2014.

An hour earlier, the 29-year-old subject had been pulled over in his white Range Rover on northbound I-95 for speeding on an approach ramp, swerving across lanes and racing through Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Tunnel.

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When police stopped him just north of the toll booths, his speech was slurred. His eyes were bloodshot. And he reeked of alcohol.

The arresting officer knew right away who he was, but spelled the name for the radio dispatcher: Michael Fred Phelps II.

“One in custody,” he added. “DUI.”

Now, as the most decorated swimmer in history leans against a wall in his tan pants, low cut sneakers and dark shirt, he steals a look at the overhead camera, which catches, for a second, the pain in his eyes.

Then he turns away and lowers his head.

VIDEO: Out of rehab and out for redemption: Michael Phelps aims for Rio

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Peeling back the onion

This month, Michael Phelps, 30, a year and a half removed from that night, will be trying out for his fifth Olympic Games.

A first-time father — his son, Boomer Robert Phelps, was born May 5 — the swimmer says he is over his past troubles, is transformed as a person and has trained as never before.

The legendary athlete, who holds 18 gold medals from three Olympics and still is the global face of swimming, says much of the change is because of that incident. He was on a dangerous trajectory, he says, and urgently needed to be diverted.

“It was . . . something that helped me,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today, in every aspect of my life, without that.”

Shaken by what was then his second drunk driving arrest, Phelps underwent six weeks of treatment in a pricey desert rehab facility in the hill country northwest of Phoenix in the fall of 2014. His recovery was at times harsh. He says he stayed in his room for the first week of rehab. And some thought he would never see it through.

But he did.

Now he’s “in tune,” he says, happier than he has ever been and delighted to be a father: “Really, truly . . . the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

He says he hasn’t had a drink in more than a year and a half. His 18-month court-ordered probation ends this month. And while he admits to past binge drinking, he recently told NBC that he doesn’t think he has a drinking problem.

He has relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., with his fiancee and Boomer’s mother, Nicole Johnson, 30, to train under his longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, now at nearby Arizona State University. (The baby’s middle name is in honor of Bowman. As for Boomer: “Why not Boomer?” Phelps says.)

Phelps has developed a newfound maturity and sense of commitment. He and his fiancee, Nicole Johnson, welcomed their first child in May.

And he has come to grips with the 16 years of international celebrity that attended, for better and worse, his evolution from boy to man.

“If you looked at Michael like an onion,” says Johnson, “layers [have been] peeled back.” And the core of Michael Phelps has been reached and examined.

“He’s made me a better person because of what he’s experienced.”

Phelps is in top physical condition — extra lean and muscled — and says he’s in the best shape since he won a record-setting eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

He’s older and stronger, yet tires much more easily.

During a meet last weekend in Austin, Bowman withdrew Phelps from the finals of the 200-meter individual medley on the last day, saying his swimmer was tired.

The coach says he’s fine. Psychologically, Phelps needs to swim, Bowman says. The sport on which Phelps turned his back four years ago fills a psychic need he can’t fill elsewhere.

And now, “he’s in so much better place as a person, and therefore as an athlete,” his coach says. “I honestly never thought I’d see that again.”

Phelps wins the 200-meter butterfly at a meet in April. He will attempt to qualify later this month for the Rio Olympics.

A different state of mind

On a sunny morning this spring at Arizona State’s Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe, Phelps took a white sheet of paper, dipped it in the water and plastered it to the concrete at the end of his swimming lane.

“Monday April 18,” the paper said.

“Turn your cant’s into cans and your dreams into plans.”

“69 days to Omaha.”

These were Bowman’s daily exhortations.

“Omaha” referred to the U.S. Olympic swimming trials that begin there June 26 and run through July 3 . The trials determine who makes the U.S. team that competes in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Phelps wants to make the team and intends to swim the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 200 individual medley in Omaha.

If he makes the team, he would be the first U.S. male swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games — 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016. And if he gets to Rio, he could become the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold medal.

But he mainly wants to say that for the first time he has prepared to the max. “If I go to Rio and don't final, I’m probably going to be a little pissed,” he says. “But . . . I’ll be able to accept it. I’m in a different state of mind now.”

On this morning, he launched himself into the pool with about a half dozen other swimmers. He had an arduous day ahead — practice, the unveiling of his new line of competition swimming gear and a round of interviews with the media. By day’s end, he would look exhausted.

Practice at the outdoor pool began quietly. The bleachers were empty. The only sound was the gentle slap, slap of the swimmers’ strokes in the water. Up and back, from one end to the other. Over and over.

Bowman, who will coach the U.S. men’s team in Brazil, stood watching, arms folded, at one end of the pool. Everyone knew the drill.

Phelps was two and a half years into his latest comeback.

Last summer, at a meet in San Antonio, he had stunned the swimming world, and himself, by swimming the 200 and 100 “fly” in stellar comeback times of 1 minute 52.94 seconds and 50.56 seconds, respectively.

Now he was about to head off for six weeks of work at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

But first there was business, and interviews.

The final round was with six reporters at a table in a small ASU conference room.

A French journalist asked what he had learned over the last four years. Phelps said he had learned a lot about himself and felt unburdened.

A German reporter asked about his relationship with his long estranged father. Phelps said he was glad he was able to repair it.

An American reporter asked him if he was still serious about playing professional poker. “Mike, I haven’t played cards in a long time,” he said. “I have other things that are more important to me than playing cards.”

Longtime Coach Bob Bowman has been a constant presence during Phelps's career. Bowman will guide the U.S. team in RIo.

At the height of his glory

I covered Phelps for eight months in 2004, as he prepared for and then starred in the Athens Olympics.

I watched him train and compete, observed him eat at his favorite breakfast spot in Baltimore. I got to know his mother, Debbie, and his coach.

Watching him was a thrill. He was competitive, relentless and dominating. He attacked the water like a predator chasing dinner. Then, at the height of his glory in Athens, where he won six gold medals, he made a gesture of sublime sportsmanship.

He had edged out teammate and rival Ian Crocker to win the 100 butterfly and the right to swim in the medley relay, the crowning swimming event of the Olympics.

Phelps, then 19, knew Crocker had been fighting a sore throat and felt he deserved another shot. He announced that he was giving up his relay slot to Crocker.

“I will be in the stands, and I will be cheering as hard as I can,” Phelps said at the time. “We came into this meet as a team, and we’re going to be leaving it as a team.”

The next night, Crocker led the U.S. to victory in a world record.

In the deepest black hole

The last time I talked to Phelps that year was in November. The Games were long over, when one evening he called me at home. He had never done that before.

Five days earlier, he had been pulled over by Maryland State Police on the Eastern Shore and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and running a stop sign.

Now he was calling reporters to read a prepared statement.

“I felt I’d gone from ... being on top of the world ... to being in the deepest black hole.”

Michael Phelps

“Last week, I made a mistake,” he said. “Getting in a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable. I’m 19 but was taught no matter how old you are, you should always take responsibility for your actions, which I will do.

“I’m extremely sorry for this. . . . That’s all I can say right now.”

That was it.

“I was thoroughly ashamed,” he wrote four years later in a short autobiography. “I felt I’d gone from . . . being on top of the world . . . to being in the deepest black hole.”

The worst part was that he had made his mother cry. He had never seen her that upset.

“I vowed it would never happen again,” he wrote.

Phelps won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and was one of the most popular athletes in the world.

Done with swimming

Phelps rebounded and went on to further renown at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

President George W. Bush telephoned him. He was welcomed home to Baltimore with a parade and set up his own charitable foundation. Everybody seemed to know who he was. Cab drivers. Airport baggage attendants. Photographers. Life was sweet. And he was worth millions.

But he no longer had time for some of the people who had once been close to him, he wrote. Friends started asking him what was up, what was going on.

Five months after the Beijing Games, his image was slammed again.

On Feb. 1, 2009, a now-defunct British tabloid reported that Phelps took several hits from a marijuana bong the previous November at a party in Columbia, S.C. A photo accompanying the story showed a man who appeared to be Phelps using the device.

In a statement the next day, Phelps said he had engaged in regrettable behavior and promised that this would not happen again.

USA Swimming barred him from competition for three months.

It gave him time to think: What was he doing? Would he leave swimming? Where was he headed?

A month later, Phelps woke up in his home near Baltimore’s harbor. He looked out the window at the water, and “like a light switch had been thrown,” he realized what was next.

He wanted to swim in the 2012 Olympics in London. This time, he wanted to be a leader, a role model. He would show that a person could learn from his mistakes.

He called Bowman to tell him. “The passion was back,” he wrote.

In hindsight, it really wasn’t.

Phelps has talked often in recent months about how poorly he prepared for London. His training was “a joke,” he says. Sometimes he’d show up for practice; sometimes he wouldn’t. His relationship with Bowman frayed. “I will never allow another athlete to treat me the way Michael did during that stretch,” Bowman recalled in a book he published last month.

“We just kind of tolerated each other, ” the coach says. “There was a time there in 2010 where I got so frustrated that I just left and went to Australia for three weeks.”

“I was like, ‘If you’re not going to be here, I’m not going to be here. He shut me out.”

But Phelps made the U.S. team and won four more gold medals.

And after the Games were over, he was finished with swimming. He wanted nothing to do with it. He was moving on.

Among other things, he had always loved playing poker. He admired the professional top players, and for a time poker pro Jeff Gross lived with him in Baltimore.

“You’re telling me that somebody that has ... all the freedom, all the choices, that somehow all of those things don’t meet a need inside of you that swimming does.”

Coach Bob Bowman, on Phelps's return to swimming.

“I’m more relaxed, I think, at a poker table than I was in the pool,” he told PokerStars.com in 2013. “When I was in the pool, that was my job.”

Outside the pool, he had no job, and no identity. “I looked at myself as a swimmer and nothing else,” he says.

His mother says the family tried to move on from swimming — “we were separating ourselves from the sport.”

On Sundays, Phelps, then living in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, would join the family in his stadium suite at home Ravens games. “We just started living like a normal life,” his mother says.

But he was still trying again to figure out where he belonged, Debbie Phelps says. She thought her son looked tired, and lost.

In August 2013, Phelps asked Bowman if they could have dinner.

They had seen little of each other since London. During the meal at a luxury hotel in Baltimore, Phelps announced that he wanted to make another comeback and try for one more Olympics. Bowman was floored.

“I did not want to go through it again,” he says. “I couldn’t. No way.”

He told Phelps that if he was coming back for his sponsors, or because he didn’t have anything else to do, it would be a big mistake.

“You’re telling me that somebody that has all the money . . . all the freedom, all the choices, that somehow all of those things don’t meet a need inside of you that swimming does,” Bowman says he asked.

Phelps said yes.

“I said, ‘Under those circumstances, if you agree to do it the right way, then I would approve,’ ” Bowman says.

The swimmer resumed training a month later.

Phelps shares a laugh with fellow swimmer Ryan Lochte, left, and others at a meet in April. Phelps has committed to training unlike ever before.

A come to Jesus meeting

Phelps left Baltimore’s glittering Horseshoe Casino a little after 1 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 30, 2014.

A year into his return to the pool, the latest comeback wasn’t going well. His long layoff and lackluster London training showed. “It was very difficult for him to get back in shape,” Bowman says. “I think he got discouraged. I got discouraged.”

Phelps had missed a few practices, and Bowman was worried. “I just was afraid that he was going to go down a bad path,” the coach says. Phelps told NBC he was, and going “fast.”

He had driven to the casino that night in his new white Range Rover with the snazzy custom wheels.

It’s not clear what he was doing, but the casino has a big poker room, and Johnson, his fiancee, says he was probably playing cards. He was also drinking.

Johnson had called him from Los Angeles as he was leaving the casino. “I was already in bed,” she says. “I lived in California. I had to go to work the next morning. I just said, ‘Are you okay?’ ”

He said he was.

He and Johnson, who had dated on and off for seven years, were back together but had a cross-country romance. “I would fly out as much as I could,” she says. “I was [in L.A.] He was in Baltimore.”

A former Miss California, Johnson had met Phelps in 2007 at the ESPYs sports awards in Hollywood. “We hit it off,” she says. “He was a lot of fun.”

The couple lived together when Phelps was training at the University of Michigan, where Bowman then coached. But they later parted. “We both had growing up to do,” she says. “He also had the world ahead of him, and was on top of the world in 2008. . . . I wasn’t in that same position.”

She didn’t attend the Olympics in 2008, or in 2012, when she and Phelps were still apart. But by 2014, they had reconnected. (They were engaged in February 2015 and plan to marry after the Rio Olympics.)

Phelps left the casino and sped onto southbound Interstate 395, which curves sharply as it feeds into northbound I-95. The speed limit was 45. Phelps was going 84, according to the police.

He whizzed by Tunnel Command’s Officer Hirbod Mirzaie, who was operating a radar device that registered Phelps’s speed. Mirzaie pulled out and gave chase.

Phelps sped through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, passing cars and changing lanes. Mirzaie pulled him over just past the toll plaza.

Mirzaie reported that Phelps smelled strongly of alcohol and his speech was “mush mouth.”

Phelps was swaying as the officer gave him standard field sobriety tests. He was at times disoriented and argumentative. After failing the field tests, he was handcuffed and taken to the Clinton Street station on the Patapsco River waterfront.

There, the breathalyzer test showed he had an alcohol concentration of 0.14 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath, almost twice the legal limit, according to the police. They confiscated his license.

Phelps called a number of people after he was arrested. One was retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who had long been a friend and confidante.

Phelps addresses the media in December 2014 after his trial following a drunk driving arrest. He was sentenced to 18 months probation. (Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

“Bro, I need to talk to you,” Phelps said, according to Lewis.

Phelps told him what had happened. Lewis was dismayed but sympathetic.

He says he later met with Phelps, his mother and others for several hours at Phelps’s house. Phelps was despondent. He told Sports Illustrated that at one point he didn't want to live anymore.

But Lewis says, “we had a come . . . to Jesus meeting.”

“I basically told him, ‘Okay, everything has a purpose, and now, guess what? It’s time to wake up,’ ” he says. He gave Phelps a copy of Christian author Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” .

Five days after his arrest, Phelps announced via Twitter that he was taking time off “to attend a program that will provide the help I need to better understand myself.”

He flew with Johnson and his sister Hilary to enter a 45-day program at the Meadows, a facility in Wickenberg, Ariz.

“You’re fearful,” Johnson recalls. “You don’t know what that entails and what it means for Michael. And you also don’t know, from my standpoint, what’s going to happen on the other side of it, and what he’s going to take from it.”

Johnson went back to Los Angeles and flew down to visit on Sundays. “It’s a quick trip,” she says.

Phelps was resistant to the process at first, but gradually he came around. “I felt myself walking taller and being happier every day,” he says.

He and Lewis talked and texted about Warren’s book, Lewis says.

Phelps called his longtime agent, Peter Carlisle, who could detect a change in his voice. “It was such a great feeling,” Carlisle says. “He just had this enthusiasm in his voice. He was excited.”

Phelps also called Bowman. At first, the coach was skeptical: “He never calls me. Ever.” But in the middle of the program, Bowman flew out from Baltimore and spent a day with him. He was amazed when he arrived.

“I could not believe it,” Bowman says. “I didn’t think that he would embrace the process there. I thought he would just sit there like a bump on a log till the time was up. . . . When I saw him . . . he was dramatically changed.”

Phelps had been lifting weights, running and using the Meadows’ pool to train.

“My God,” Bowman says he thought as he left, “He might come back and really swim.”

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