Michael Phelps is already the world’s most decorated Olympic athlete, and when the 2008 Beijing Games end, he’ll likely also be one of its richest. But the man who has driven Phelps to be at his swimming best for more than half his life only looks ahead to his pupil’s next dive into the racing lane.
Bob Bowman, the 43-year-old coach who discovered the swimming prodigy when Phelps was just 11, continues to keep his eye on the goal as Phelps nears the end of his epic journey toward being hailed as the greatest Olympic athlete who has ever competed.
“We still have some races to go, but I’m sure at some point we’ll sit back and look at how it goes in the big picture,” Bowman told Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira in TODAY’s Beijing location studio.
“I feel great about what he’s done so far, but I think he can do more.”
The “more” both Phelps and Bowman seek is a record-breaking eight gold medals in Beijing. Phelps, 23, claimed his sixth gold Thursday in the 200-meter individual medley, and now stands two races away from breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in an individual Olympics.
The fatigue factorAt this point, Phelps’ exhilaration at winning six golds — each one with a world record-breaking time — is matched only by his fatigue. That’s where Bowman’s relentless training comes into play, as Phelps competes against other athletes — and history — in the 100-meter fly and the 200-meter individual medley this weekend.
All told, Phelps has already competed in 15 races in less than a week.
“This is why I did what I did,” Bowman said of his training regimen with Phelps. “If you saw his face after the 200-IM, there was a little fatigue in it. So we’re going to find out how the training worked. I’m pretty confident, because mentally he’s so good and he’s trained so hard.”
The man the awed Chinese press calls “The American Superfish” saw his dreams turn to gold under the direction of Bowman, who first spotted Phelps in 1996 at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Bowman told Lauer and Vieira he knew right away he was on to something special.
“He had a lot of things that would catch a coach’s eye — his body type was perfect for swimming,” Bowman recalled. “The thing that really struck me was that he was so competitive in everything he did, whether he was playing a game on the playground or whether he was swimming in a meet.”
Complex relationshipThat Phelps had a difficult family life — his parents divorced in 1994, and Bowman has been as much a friend and personal mentor as swimming coach — isn’t lost on Bowman. He admits it’s sometimes hard to keep his personal relationship with the gifted athlete separate from the task at hand.
“Clearly we’re very close, and we have a very complicated and very special relationship,” Bowman said. “While we know everything about each other and we’ve been together so long, we still have to maintain that business relationship in the pool. It’s hard to manage sometimes.”
Lauer noted that Bowman’s training technique for Phelps — “to push him to exhaustion, then ask for something more” — has paid historic dividends: Phelps also won six gold and two bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Now, after 12 years of training his prodigy, Bowman sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think he may be getting a little tired, but he’s only got two more races left, so he’ll be ready,” Bowman promised. So how are the coach’s nerves holding up as the culmination of all his hard work approaches?
“I think I’ve reached such a fatigue point, maybe I’m not nervous anymore,” Bowman told Lauer.