IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympian ever?

Michael Phelps talk to TODAY's Matt Lauer about his quest to make history in Beijing.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

What will Michael Phelps be thinking when he climbs on the starting block in Beijing’s spectacular Water Cube swimming stadium to begin his quest to win eight Olympic gold medals?

“You’re on the blocks, the gun goes off,” TODAY’s Matt Lauer told Phelps, setting the scenario. “At that moment, what’s in your mind?”

“Nothing,” Phelps said.

“Zero?” Lauer said.

“Nothing,” the world’s greatest swimmer insisted.

It was a telling insight into the mind of one of the greatest athletes in the world, and it came during a far-ranging, one-on-one interview that Lauer conducted with Phelps in Ann Arbor, where he trains with the University of Michigan swim team and his long-time coach, Bob Bowman.

“There’s nothing you can think about there,” Phelps explained, echoing Yogi Berra, the Hall-of-Fame New York Yankee legend who once said, “I can’t think and hit at the same time.” During the heat of competition is no time for thinking. It is a time for doing.

“I love to compete,” he said. “I like getting up on the block and racing whoever I have to get up on the block and race ... And when I get up there, I can just get in the water and swim as fast as I can. That's all I can think about.”

Four years ago, Phelps went to Athens as a 19-year-old full of promise and attempting to equal or better Mark Spitz’s 1972 feat of winning seven swimming golds in one Olympics. He won six gold and added two more bronze.

Much has changed since then. He moved from his parents' home in Maryland to Ann Arbor. He’s gotten more powerful and even faster in the pool. He’s making scads of money from endorsements.

Taking on the worldFour years ago, he has said he was like a deer in the headlights, not knowing what to do with all the attention, the questions, the pressure. Now, he said, he’s more mature and more experienced.

“I'm more relaxed now, more calm. I sort of know what to handle, what to expect. I know what's gonna come at me,” he said.

What’s coming at him is every other swimmer in the world eager to win gold and take down the mighty Michael Phelps in the process.

“You have a target on your back,” Lauer said. “Does that make you swim faster or is it a weight?”

“I don't think it's a weight,” Phelps replied. “I don't really think about what anyone else is doing and how they race their race or whatever. I know that if I train as hard as I can and I do things differently than other people do, I'm gonna be fine. I like to race the best, but I can control what I do and if I'm the best prepared as I can be, then I'm gonna be happy, and that's all that matters.”

That mindset is characteristic of elite athletes who understand that they can control only how they prepare and what they do. They cannot control what other competitors do or the result.

And no one prepares more thoroughly or trains harder or with a more single-minded pursuit of excellence than Phelps. By the time the swimming competition begins in Beijing, he will have been in the pool every day for more than 300 days straight. That’s Sundays, holidays, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Super Bowl Sunday — every single day.

“When I was growing up, I had five years in a row without taking a single day off,” Phelps explained. “I was in the water every day. And if we can do it for 40 weeks or something, that's 40 extra workouts that no one else has. That just gives us a little extra confidence.”

That dedication characterizes everything he does. Swimming comes first, and there really is no second. He told Lauer he’s put relationships, vacations, everything on hold to pursue his goals.

What to others would seem a sacrifice is not to Phelps. “Everything’s going to be there for me no matter what it is afterwards, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm not going to let myself just throw it all away.”

His goals remain a secret known only to Phelps and Bowman. As the swimmer did going to Athens, he writes his goals for the year down and keeps them next to his bed.

“If you can, just give me a hint as to what that piece of paper says that's different this time around than what it said four years ago?” Lauer prodded.

“The times are faster,” said Phelps, explaining that he puts specific race times and split times on his list, “and then Bob takes care of hopefully getting me to those times in training.”

A lot of people have talent, and others have drive and others have the ability to concentrate almost obsessively on a goal, but only once in a generation or more does someone come along who has all of those qualities together. It is why athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps are so rare.

Lauer told Phelps that he has been compared to golfer Tiger Woods and tennis player Roger Federer, who have become so great that their only competition is themselves.

“It makes me feel good,” Phelps said, adding that he doesn’t think the comparison fits. “I don't think of myself as that,” he said. “I just think of myself as, honestly, a normal person coming in here, swimming every day because I love it. I just have high goals for myself, and I don't give up until I achieve those.”

Unrelenting coach, incomparable athlete
He can’t get there by himself, and that’s where Bowman comes in. His job is to coach the best swimmer in the world. He succeeds because the best is not good enough for him. The best must become better.

Occasionally, when Bowman pushes Phelps past exhaustion and into places he doesn’t want to go during a practice session, the unrelenting coach and the incomparable athlete will go at each other.

“We usually clash because nothing's ever good enough for me,” Bowman told Lauer. “He can be really tired in training, and I'm asking him to take another step. And I think that's really important because what he's trying to do is so physically challenging. So I try to find ways to completely exhaust him and then expect him to do something really, really good.”

“We both know how to push each other's buttons,” Phelps said. “And if he pushes my buttons the wrong way, then I push his buttons the wrong way. That’s when we get in our little things.”

What kind of things, Lauer asked.

“Stupid things,” Phelps said.

The little tiffs are inevitable. They are in some ways like a married couple who have been together for years. “We both have our tempers,” Phelps said, but in the end, they are a team.

“Bob and I are friends,” Phelps told Lauer. “He's my coach. I'm his athlete. We're very, very close. We have a great friendship. This year we've been with each other for so long, and we work well together.”

Lauer asked Phelps what he would write if he could compose the article after the Games are over that describes his Olympics.

“I have nothing to say,” he said. “It’ll be written how it should at that point.”

Lauer asked Bowman the same question. If the story begins “Michael Phelps,” Lauer said, how does it end?

“Greatest Olympian ever,” said the coach.

“Achieved something that no one thought was possible?” added Lauer.

“Yeah,” said Bowman.

“Think that’s what will be written?”

“That’s what I think.”