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Phelps’ journey to Olympic gold

Michael Phelps delivered amid extraordinary expectations at the 2004 Summer Olympics. His record-tying performance included six gold and two bronze medals, but also helped push swimming into the mainstream. Now Michael Phelps recounts the challenges he faced on the way to the podium. From overcoming attention deficit disorder to dealing with his parents’ divorce, Phelps has experienced adversity

Michael Phelps delivered amid extraordinary expectations at the 2004 Summer Olympics. His record-tying performance included six gold and two bronze medals, but also helped push swimming into the mainstream. Now Michael Phelps recounts the challenges he faced on the way to the podium. From overcoming attention deficit disorder to dealing with his parents’ divorce, Phelps has experienced adversity on top of great accomplishment. Michael Phelps was invited on the “Today” show to discuss his new book, “Beneath the Surface.” Here's an excerpt:

My Own Miracle

The night before my first Olympic race in Athens, I could see myself in a movie. Hold on, it isn’t as fun as it sounds. I was in my room at the Olympic village, watching "Miracle," the story about the 1980 U.S. hockey team. I had watched the movie twice before, and there was one scene that really hit home. About four months before the team won the gold medal in Lake Placid and inspired the whole country, it played an exhibition game in Norway that the players never forgot. The Americans tied that night, but the listless way they played enraged their head coach Herb Brooks. After the game was over and the players figured they’d have time to rest, Brooks made them skate from one end of the ice to the other, no matter how tired they were. After they finished one round, he’d blow his whistle and shout out “again.” And away they’d go. “Again.” The players were gasping for air. “Again.” The players were falling over from exhaustion. “Again.” Soon one of the workmen came by and turned off the lights in the arena, but Brooks wasn’t satisfied. “Again.” After a few dozen “agains,” Coach Brooks finally let the players go back to their locker rooms, and they knew after that, no matter what the score, it was his job to drive them until they gave their best effort. They knew that no matter what obstacle they faced at the Olympics, even a game against the seemingly unbeatable Soviets, they had already overcome something more difficult—that night of endless “agains.” They may have hated Brooks for it at the time, but how could they have been that good without him?

Fast-forward 24 years to a pool at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. It was a Friday in February 2004, a day that was supposed to mean a light workout of about 5,000 easy yards. That’s almost three miles, which for us is almost a day off. Instead it was the day Herb Brooks reappeared as my coach, Bob Bowman. We started doing these kicking drills: 75 yards of kicking only, at full speed, followed by 50 yards easy. After a couple of those, you start to feel a burn in your legs, so they get a little wobbly as you get out of the pool. But do enough of them, and your legs get stronger and you’re able to kick harder and more efficiently during competitions. We were supposed to do eight sets of these drills, but apparently we didn’t do them very well. “C’mon, get it right,” I remember Bob saying that day. So eight sets became ten. “No loafing,” Bob shouted. And we were up to 12. “If you’re not serious, why show up?” Fifteen and counting. “I said full speed.” Eighteen. You know, when Bob gets really angry, there’s a vein in the right side of his neck that just gets bigger and more pronounced. By the time we were on our 24th set, his vein looked like a second neck.

When I got out of the pool that day, you could have twirled up my legs and put tomato sauce on them because they felt like spaghetti. That was a serious burn. Could even the Olympics be this hard? The movie resonated with me because without all the hard work they put in, without a few days of spaghetti legs, the U.S. hockey players would never have been capable of their miracle. They worked at it. They needed someone to push them. They needed to push themselves. They became a family. They grew up. They understood that commitment—real commitment you never knew you could make—comes before winning. And they could never have done it alone. At the Olympic Village the night before the biggest meet of my life, I fell asleep to "Miracle."

I woke up the next morning at 7 a.m. and I had never been so pumped for anything in my life. Usually I get fidgety when I’m in the middle of the most intense part of my training. As I get closer to a big meet, I relax and get laid back, because the hard work is done and the fun part, the thrill of competition, is in front of me. On the first Saturday of competition, I couldn’t wait to get back in the water. I had the 400-meter individual medley that day, with the top eight swimmers from the morning heats advancing to the evening finals. Before the morning swim, I followed the routine Bob had meticulously planned for me: I ate a light oatmeal breakfast, stretched for half an hour exactly two hours before the race, did 35 minutes of drills and light swimming, relaxed up to half an hour before the event, put on the racing suit, took a light swim ten minutes before and then got on the blocks to race.

Bob has the internal stopwatch of a mad scientist. If daily plans are off by minutes or if split times are off by hundredths of seconds, the vein starts popping and the lungs start shouting. He doesn’t want anything to be random.

Bob and I didn’t say much about the morning prelim, which was a good sign. I had the fastest time in the heats and I was considered the favorite to win that night. A year earlier I won the 400 IM at the World Championships in Barcelona in world-record time. With a possible eight events staring at me, Bob and I both thought it was a good thing that the final of the 400 IM, a “safe” race, was ahead of me on the first night.

Between sessions, I talked briefly to Erik Vendt, the other U.S. swimmer in the race. Erik and I had talked about finishing one-two as we had at the Olympic Trials the previous month in Long Beach. Unfortunately, he didn’t swim that well in the morning and barely qualified for the final, in eighth position. “Forget about it,” I told him.  “This wasn’t you and you know that. We’ll get ’em tonight.”

An hour later I was back at the village, hoping to rest and trying to figure out why I couldn’t mash my pillow into the right shape. Usually, I’m so spent after being in the water, I fall asleep like a rock and you can give me a gold medal for power napping. No luck that day. I stared at the ceiling in my room for two solid hours. Try telling a kid to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. Can’t do it. The anticipation is way too intense, except that this wasn’t something I’d been waiting for since last December 26; I had been waiting for this for as long as I can remember having goals. One gold medal. That’s what I thought about since 1992, the year I realized I could swim. Every time reporters asked me about tying or breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at one Olympics, I’d keep reminding them that it was my dream to win one gold medal. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t shut my eyes that afternoon—my dream was in front of me, hours away. There are times in my sleep when I literally dream my race from start to finish. Other nights, when I’m about to fall asleep, I visualize to the point that I know exactly what I want to do: dive, glide, stroke, flip, reach the wall, hit the split time to the hundredth, then swim back again for as many times as I need to finish the race. It’s pretty vivid the first time I do it, but eventually it puts me to sleep as if I’m counting sheep. But two hours of visualization! Know what happens when you stare at a ceiling for two hours? It’s still the same ceiling. Get me out of here. I want to swim again.

At 4:30 an overflow of athletes and coaches started pushing their way to get on the bus to take us to the swim stadium. “Michael, be aggressive. Move up towards the door,” Bob prodded. “Need to make this one or we’re behind schedule.” At that point I turned around and snapped. “What can I do? There’s nothing I can do about it! Everyone’s leaving at the same time, okay?” Bob and I made the bus, but we didn’t talk when we were inside. He knew I was nervous, wound tighter than he’d ever seen me before a race.

I went through the same warmup at the pool and the minutes before the race went by pretty slowly. Finally I walked onto the deck with Eminem’s “Til I Collapse” blaring on my headphones. I’m a huge hip-hop fan, and for the last year I’ve listened to that song before each race. I won’t repeat all the words, but it begins like this:

Sometimes you feel tired, feel weak

When you feel weak, you feel like you wanna just give up

But you gotta search within you, find that inner strength.

I toweled off the block in my lane, Lane 4, took the headphones off, and stretched my legs against the block, right leg first and left leg second. On the blocks I have a ritual of bending down, reaching my arms above my head and swinging them back down three times across my chest very fast. Then I get into a track start (one leg behind the other), wait for the loud beep and go.

As I jumped into the pool, Rowdy Gaines, an Olympic champion from 1984 and an NBC analyst in Athens, was telling his audience, “This event is going to introduce America to Michael Phelps.”

The 400 IM consists of 100 meters, or two poollengths, of each stroke; butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. My plan for the race was pretty straightforward: take as big a lead as I could—two bodylengths, if possible—before the breaststroke, which is my weakest stroke. Bob wanted me to stay just ahead of my record pace without blasting it too fast.

My butterfly split, 55.57 seconds, put me ahead of the 55.66 I swam at the Olympic Trials in Long Beach a month earlier when I broke the world record. I didn’t actually know the time, but I felt very strong.

I have a habit of looking up at the clock during the backstroke, because I can face the scoreboard. I knew I was on target, and I could feel that I was starting to pull away from the swimmers next to me by the two bodylengths I’d wanted.

The breaststroke leg always seems to take forever. Since your hands aren’t supposed to break the surface of the water, it takes about ten seconds longer to swim 100 meters in the breaststroke than it does, for example, in the freestyle. I got through it without losing much of my lead. I was 100 meters away.

When I came off the last wall with 50 meters to go, I looked to my left and saw Italy’s Alessio Boggiatto approaching the wall in Lane 3. Then I looked to my right and saw Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh just getting to the wall in Lane 5. Since the people who swim the fastest in the heats get the middle lanes in the finals, those swimmers can usually keep a close eye on their competition. At that point I knew I was about to win the gold medal I’d been thinking about, talking about, even dreaming about, for most of my life. I smiled through the water for the last 25 meters. I rarely do that during practice unless someone cracks me up in the middle of easy laps, and I never do that during a race. That night I remember smiling as I glided into the wall.

Immediately after every race I look up and try to find my mom, Debbie, in the stands. It isn’t just because she’s been there for all my meets, but because she’s been there for everything else. She raised me as a single parent since I was seven and supported me unconditionally through everything, not just at moments when I was smiling at the ends of my races. So before I looked at the scoreboard, I looked up and saw my mom standing next to my sisters, Whitney and Hilary, who were all cheering. After that, I glanced at the clock and saw the WR, signifying world record, next to my name. I put my arm in the air, but I was in a trance. Even though I had been ahead in the race, it still didn’t sink in that I had won until I looked up and saw the #1 next to my name. I was waiting for that switch to go off, so I could let my emotions go. The switch came from Lane 1. “Mike! Mike!” It was Erik, swimming over across the lane lines to get me. I hadn’t even noticed that he had finished second. We went one-two. “Yeah, Vendt, yeah,” I shouted.  “Yeah, we did it.”

At that moment I was as happy for Erik as I was for myself. He had won a silver, behind our teammate, Tom Dolan, four years earlier at the Sydney Olympics. Nobody worked harder or deserved his medal more than Erik. Our team book lists him at about 5-10, but that’s pretty generous. He doesn’t have the physical gifts that other swimmers have, but he just works harder than other people. I never thought I’d celebrate like that with a Red Sox fan, but something like this is twice as sweet when you can share it with your teammates.

“Yah, Vendt, we did it!” Erik and I hugged and got out of the pool.  I was still in a fog when we passed the mixed zone, an area underneath the stands where reporters stand behind some barriers and ask quick questions. I was too giddy to remember what I said. Bob caught up to me then and handed me an instant breakfast drink. As much energy as I expend, I need to try to keep weight on and keep nutrients in my body after races and long training days. “So proud of you,” he said. “It felt great,” I told him.

At that point, Bob was trying to get me back into the practice pool as fast as possible, so I could swim down and get some of the lactic acid out of my legs.

Especially with three more races the next day, a warm down at the end of a race was as important as a warm-up before one.

After our events, we have to go into doping control. While we don’t have to go right away, we always have to check in with a drug control steward and sign a form right after that race to confirm that we’ve been notified to be tested. That night, the steward came up to me and started talking in slow motion. “Mee-ster Phelps, you have, you’ve been, I tell you have been see-lec-ted for the doh-ping control. You may take, you have the op-shun, Mee-ster Phelps, to have, if I may ex-plain.” At that point, Bob jumped in. “Just give him the paper and have him sign it.” Now, Bob was the one who was wound up. It’s his job to keep me grounded through the highs and lows, but this was a tough one. It was as big a high as I’ve ever felt. I got into the practice pool behind the stands and started swimming, still smiling through the water. Another official came over to tell Bob to get me ready for the medal ceremony. “We need your swimmer in five minutes,” they told him.

“The schedule says it’s not for 20 minutes,” Bob said.

“Yes, but they must wait . . . “

“Sorry, you’ll get him in 15.”

The medal ceremony was awesome. I had stood on podiums before, but I had never won an Olympic medal, and this one was over too quickly. We were introduced and given our medals. Then, to honor the ancient Games in Greece, they gave us wreaths to wear on top of our heads during the ceremony. We didn’t know they were planning to do that, and we were a little unsure what to do once our music started playing. I took the wreath off my head and put it over my heart.

My mom had always taught me to try to keep calm in the face of tension and excitement. I was singing the anthem through my teeth and trying not to lose my composure at the same time. As I stared at the flags, I could see snapshots of a kid from Baltimore who was afraid of the water and a schoolteacher who said the kid wouldn’t amount to anything because he couldn’t concentrate. I saw a coach driving the kid through 24 laps and a family who supported him through everything. Was I really that kid standing on up here? At “Home of the Brave,” I closed my eyes, almost as if I were snapping one more picture I could look at again and again in my mind.

I started walking with Erik past a photographers’ well, where we stood and posed for pictures. I was looking up into the stands at Hilary, who was shooting me with a camcorder. I looked up and saw Dolan, who usually says things twice when he gets a little excited. “Yah, yah, yah, yah, great, great, great,” he screamed, apparently hyper-excited. At that point, my mom passed by and I threw my flowers up to her in the stands before I went back to the practice pool.

I swam down for 45 minutes, had a massage and got on the cell phone with Hilary. “Where are you guys?” I asked her. “We’re over by a fence, behind you, and they’re going to kick us out.” “Hold on,” I told her. “I want to see you guys.” A minute later, I saw my mom and my sisters waving at me through the fence. I hoisted myself up to kiss Whitney and Hilary. Then they each held a small cement box in place for my mom to step up and do the same. Thankfully, the guards gave us our space. We were away from the horde of reporters, and I didn’t have to keep my emotions in check because Hilary was the only one taking pictures. The spotlight was gone and it was our moment. I put my wrists through the holes in the fence so my mom could hold my hands. Next I pointed to the medal and said, “Mom, look. Here it is.” Then I put the medal in her hand so she could hold it. My eyes welled up again and so did hers. It was one of those moments when you want to say a million things because so much is running through your head. Yet for some reason, you say almost nothing. I’m sure I said more than, “I did it, Mom. I did it,” but I was too semiconscious to remember much else.

Excerpted from "Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface" by Michael Phelps with Brian Cazeneuve. Copyright © 2005 by Michael Phelps with Brian Cazeneuve. Excerpted by permission of Sports Publishing LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.