Longtime Sidekick Propels Swimmer
Coach Is the Force Behind Gold Medal Dreams
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page A01
Third in a series of occasional articles
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, said he won't enter Phelps in any race in which he doesn't have a good chance for a gold medal. He also said 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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company