By Barry Svrluga and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 18, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 17 -- Michael Phelps will take the quaint moments with him, the games of spades and Risk against his dormmates in the Athletes' Village, the chance meeting with tennis star Rafael Nadal in which the swimming Olympian was the dumbstruck one. There was, too, the hug with his mother -- whom he scarcely saw during the entire Olympics. He will pack each swimsuit, each cap, each pair of goggles, keepsakes all as he heads back to Maryland, where he will again make his home town his home.
He will return with his eight gold medals to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club that produced him. His coach, Bob Bowman, is taking over the club, and Phelps will move into a house he bought in Baltimore, back to his roots. His mother, Debbie -- who squealed with every win here and whose facial contortions were a fixture on NBC's live prime-time telecasts-- will be nearby, as will his older sisters. His dog, Herman, will come along, too.
"I'm really looking forward to going home," he said.
For now, though, he will hang around Beijing, lapping up the rewards. Matching Mark Spitz already earned him a $1 million bonus from Speedo, the swimwear manufacturer. He will have media events and lavish parties over the next week sponsored by such companies as Visa and Omega, the watchmaker. As the all-time leader in gold medals, he surely will become the richest Olympian as well.
"I'm not doing this for the money," he said.
He is, rather, doing it to change his sport, which remains largely out of the public eye except for one week every four years. Through all those training laps and card games, through all the bus rides to and from the pool here, Bowman at his side all the while, that is what he said he wanted most.
"I want to raise the bar in the sport of swimming some more," he said. He noted that 70,000 people remained at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore following a Ravens preseason game to watch Phelps in the butterfly leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay.
"Four years ago, that never would have happened," he said. "I think it can go even farther. That's where I hope to take it."
He'll have plenty of stories to tell along the way, about how a 23-year-old product of divorced parents who grew up with his mother in Baltimore County, controlled himself physically and mentally in executing the seemingly impossible. It brought a reflection on Spitz, whose record Phelps surpassed on Sunday, when he finished a perfect meet here with a victory in the 4x100-meter medley relay.
"What he did is an amazing feat," Phelps said. "Being able to have something to shoot for, it made those days when you were tired and didn't want to work out, it made those days easier, to look at him and say, 'I want to do this.' I'm thankful for having him do what he did."
There, then, was an admission from Phelps of what drove him not only to become an Olympian, which he first did as a 15-year-old in Sydney. Phelps is one who needs goals, and though he stated repeatedly that only he and Bowman truly knew what they were, he wrote them down, kept them in his head. If someone could win seven in a single Games, which Spitz did in 1972, Phelps figured he could surely win eight.
Spitz, though, can no longer serve as a motivator. Phelps restated his commitment to swim in 2012 at the London Olympics. If he does, he will participate in his fourth Games at age 27, already owning 14 gold medals. But if he does, he likely will perform as a different swimmer after different achievements.
When Phelps first went for Spitz's record, in 2004 in Athens, he was a 19-year-old swimming an experimental, eight-event program that even Bowman didn't know if he could pull off. After six golds there, Bowman and Phelps concentrated on a weight-lifting program that increased the swimmer's strength, power and endurance. Now, after the eight golds here, it is time for another change.
"I'm looking forward to trying some new events," Phelps said.
Phelps won his first gold here in the 400-meter individual medley, a race that is grueling not only because of its length, but because it combines all four strokes in swimming. Almost as soon as he climbed from the water after taking that gold, Phelps seemed to toss the event aside.
Four years from now, Phelps envisions himself as a sprinter. His body type, veteran swim coaches say, isn't perfect for the powerful, explosive disciplines, and he would have to train his muscles differently.
"I think he thinks it might be a little easier," Bowman said Sunday. "But it'll be different. I think he can sprint, but I think he's more naturally suited to longer events. So it'll be a change for him, but I think it'll be a good one."
That would put a transformed Phelps in London, likely with the 100-meter freestyle added to a program that would include no event longer than 200 meters. He could, too, drop the 200 butterfly, to this point his signature event. Part of the transformation would be physical, designed to minimize the wear on what, by that point, will be a body that will have absorbed 15 years of Bowman's intense program. But the other portion of the transformation will be mental. He has clearly mastered the 200 butterfly, for instance.
"It's hard to push yourself when no one's pushing you," Bowman said during the week. Put a new piece of raw meat in front of Phelps, however, and the results might be astounding.
"I think he can do it," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said. "I think what we've learned about Michael is he can do whatever he wants in this sport."
And he'll have a strong home base in Baltimore to support him. After the Athens Games, Bowman took the head coaching job at the University of Michigan. Phelps joined him in Ann Arbor to train, leaving Maryland for the first time in his life. There came some of Phelps's most vulnerable moments, most notably a broken wrist suffered last October, when he said he slipped on some ice while climbing into a car.
No such adjustments await him now.
He will pack his swimsuits and his medals, make a stop in Michigan to gather more gear, then fly on to Baltimore. He plans on making the team for next year's world championships in Rome, perhaps the first step in his transformation. And if Phelps has his way, people will be watching him there -- and every step of the way, right up to London. The sport of swimming has never seen anyone like him. Now, he hopes the sport of swimming is never the same.