Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Michael Phelps's time in the 400-meter individual medley at the Pan Pacific Championships was more than 11 seconds under his best time in that event. It was more than 11 seconds over his best.

Pan Pacific Championships: Michael Phelps 'a long way' from top form after sporadic training

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; 12:32 AM

IRVINE, CALIF. - This is the first year swimming star Michael Phelps blatantly ignored his coach's training plan. Some days he would show up to practice, his coach, Bob Bowman, said this week. Other days he would sneak off and play golf. There would be no phone call, no heads up. Bowman would wait by the side of the pool at the designated workout time. If Phelps's lane remained empty, Bowman would go on without him.

The unexplained absences and lack of communication occasionally stretched for more than a week at a time.

"Sometimes, I would get worried: 'Is he okay?' " Bowman said. "Not that he wasn't doing his freestyle work, just, 'Is he okay?' "

Phelps's performance this week at the Pan Pacific Championships has reflected his sporadic attention to the sport. He collected his fifth gold medal of the meet Saturday night in the 4x100 medley relay. Earlier in the week, however, he failed to advance to the final of an event in which he holds a world record and on Saturday morning he dropped out of another event because he was out of gas. He acknowledged repeatedly that he arrived here in poor shape and felt disappointed with some of his times.

"There's a long way to go before I get back to where I want to be," Phelps said.

Yet even the hard-driving Bowman acknowledges that Phelps's highly unscientific and maddening approach to reducing his training load might actually help him return to top form in time for the 2012 Summer Games in London. Phelps offers the most prominent example of a growing movement among the world's top swimmers. As swimmers continue their professional careers well beyond college, the older generation is unable or unwilling to tolerate the sport's extraordinary training demands day after day and year after year.

And so, with their coaches' sanction or without, they don't.

Some, such as five-time Olympian Dara Torres, two-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin and former Olympic sprint star Gary Hall Jr., disappear from the pool for a year or years at a time for physical and mental refreshment. Others, such as Jason Lezak, Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol, take long breaks after major championships. Phelps, 25, has taken time off in random chunks, with no apparent plan in mind.

"They're no longer college kids," said Jon Urbanchek, the former coach at the University of Michigan who this year joined a USA Swimming post-graduate training center in Fullerton, Calif. "They're no longer like sheep, following one another."

Bowman, Urbanchek and other coaches say they know they can't force adult swimmers to train like children, yet swimming is not a sport that readily tolerates shortcuts. Brett Favre might be able to start a preseason game for the Minnesota Vikings just days after arriving to training camp, but when swimmers don't train, they usually go slower. Even so, Coughlin and Lezak have done surprisingly well on reduced workloads, and Phelps managed to dominate two individual events here. Experience, clearly, counts for something.

The problem for coaches and athletes: There is no proven methodology for training post-graduate swimmers that strikes a tested balance between rest and work. Coaches say they are learning to manage their aging multiple medalists as they go, crossing their fingers that they are making the right decisions with abbreviated practices, uncustomary patience and new strategies. Phelps and his peers are, in effect, test cases.

"Nobody knows what they are doing," Bowman said. "We are in uncharted territory."

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