Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, was so pessimistic about Phelps’s chances, he considered not watching the final. But in the days before the race, Cavic made a mistake for which he would pay dearly: He taunted Phelps, saying he would buy him a faster speedsuit if he couldn’t get a company to offer one for free.
In the first 50 meters, Cavic took a commanding lead and remained in front entering the final meters of the race. That’s when Phelps closed fast, blowing past Cavic to win the gold and reclaim his world record.
“Michael’s brain chemistry is such that he almost has to have that competitive environment,” Bowman said. “When he has it in his brain, it’s like unshakeable. . . . Part of it is a supreme confidence. Part of it is, he thinks he’s better than everyone else. And he is.”
There is no doubt Phelps is one of the most physically gifted athletes in history. But his performance in Rome, the eight gold medals he claimed in eight races under immense pressure in Beijing, and various other successes throughout his professional career suggest that his most valuable attribute is actually his mind. Bowman called Phelps the strongest-willed, most unflappable competitor he’s observed in any walk of life.
“He just has this confidence in his ability to get the job done whether he’s prepared for it or not,” Bowman said.
For most athletes in Olympic sports, any hope of meaningful success, financial rewards and public accolades will come down to an ability to perform in a narrow competitive window, sometimes as small as a minute or two. Because of the inherent high pressure and enormous stakes, athletes who demonstrate mental weakness will not win medals at this summer’s Olympics in London regardless of their talent or physical skills, U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Psychologist Sean McCann said.
“The pressure at the Olympic Games is really, really, really overwhelming, even if you are incredibly experienced,” said Natalie Coughlin, a two-time Olympian who has won 11 Olympic medals. “The feeling of walking onto the pool deck, standing behind the blocks knowing the race that you’ve prepared for the last four years, or the past decade, [that] everything is going to culminate in that 58 seconds or so, it’s quite stressful.”
McCann said mental tools to deal with pressure and nervousness can be learned and developed, but mental strength — just like muscular strength or other attributes — is a trait some athletes naturally possess in abundance, and others forever struggle to attain.