He keeps pace of the horses, too

Swimming: Although he's better known as Michael Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman also has his hand in the ownership and breeding of thoroughbreds.

Athens Olympics

2 Days To Go

Aug. 13 - 29

August 11, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS -- When Bob Bowman was a boy, he wanted to be John Williams, the movie composer who provided the score for most of Steven Spielberg's flights of fancy.

For the last two decades, Bowman has gone about becoming the next Doc Counsilman, the coach who turned Indiana University into a swim power, and Mark Spitz into the best in Olympic history.

When Bowman grows up, however, he wants to be Bob Baffert.

Bowman, 39, has dumped some of his disposable income into the ownership and breeding of thoroughbred horses. He gets more passionate talking about renowned trainers like Baffert and Bill Boniface than any swim legend, and comes by his pony references honestly.

"Every race has fresh horses," Bowman said, repeating his mantra of the past year. "That's why the Triple Crown doesn't get won very often, and why people don't win seven gold medals every Olympics."

Smarty Jones captivated a country, but couldn't hold on in the Belmont.

Phelps is expected to win three individual gold medals at the Olympics, but matching the four won by Spitz in 1972 -- and his total of seven golds -- will require beating great racers.

Australia's Ian Thorpe is favored in the 200-meter freestyle, and Ian Crocker is the man to beat in the 100 butterfly, what could be Phelps' seventh event.

Bowman was a serious music student growing up in Columbia, S.C., which has never been associated with the thoroughbred business. Nor has Tallahassee, Fla., where Bowman made a national cut in the 100 butterfly while training with the distance people at Florida State.

Where did Bowman develop his interest in horses? At the same location where he gained insight into how to develop the best swimmer in the world.

In the late 1970s, Tracy Caulkins did things no swimmer had done. She was coached by Paul Bergen, whose influence extends to two of America's most compelling story angles here.

Bergen coached at a club in Northern Virginia in the mid 1990s, when its roster included a slight boy. The club's cross-training introduced the youngster to running, and Alan Webb eventually attacked the track and became America's best mile hope since Jim Ryun.

Bergen's previous stop had been in Northern California, where he ran a pool that was next to a stable. After Bowman was fired by a club in Cincinnati, he went to work for Bergen at Napa Valley. When they weren't putting swimmers through their paces twice a day, Bergen and Bowman mucked stalls and tried some oddball training, the reason for the bent pinkie on Bowman's right hand.

"Paul drove a Jeep at a pretty good clip, and I sat on the back, holding [the reins] of this filly," Bowman said.

"Something scared her, and she pulled me off. Paul's golden rule is that if a horse tries to run off and you don't come back with her, you'd at least better have a piece of equipment in your hand. I lost her, but I came back with the stopper. It hit my hand so hard, it broke a ligament."

Bowman's language blends two disciplines.

Some horses "travel well," and Bowman uses that phrase to describe Phelps' ability to change time zones, board buses and not miss a beat.

Trainers put horses through "a last fast work" a few days before a race. Bowman typically has Phelps do his four days before the start of a meet, and with the biggest one of his life starting Saturday, that means that Phelps tried to nail a time yesterday, when the American team traveled from Mallorca, Spain to Athens.

Weight training gives a swimmer explosive power, and Bergen and Bowman had thoroughbreds pull sleds. Their work with horses brought dividends on their day jobs.

"Bob and I are better observers of swimmers because we had to be observant of horses," said Bergen, who now coaches Dutch star Inge de Bruijn. "Horses can't talk, and you have to be observant of their body language. You have to watch their eyes, their ears, their gait, day in and day out."

Robert Redford quieted skittish ones in The Horse Whisperer. After Phelps lost to Crocker in the 100 butterfly at last year's world championships, he sat on a chair by the practice pool for 10 minutes as Bowman kneeled and whispered in his ear. He was prepping Phelps for a news conference, laying the foundation for the pre-Olympic year.

Bowman's degree is in child psychology. Has Phelps ever seen a sports psychologist?

"Every day," Bowman said, of their skull sessions.

Bowman becomes the head coach at the University of Michigan on Sept. 1, and he has a powerful recruiting tool: Phelps will become his volunteer assistant.

Ann Arbor is a long way from Bonita Farms, the Harford County spread where Boniface trains the eight horses co-owned by Bowman and Frank Morgan, a North Baltimore Aquatic Club parent and Towson attorney who handled some of the legal work when Phelps turned pro.

"Bob says there are two kinds of people," Morgan said. "Those who own horses and those who wish they did. We're both like good swim parents when it comes to the horses. We don't question the trainers' judgment. We ask questions, but we don't render opinions."

Their partnership includes three broodmares and a pair of 3-year-olds. Sheriff Dillon, a gelding, may run twice during the Timonium meeting.

Bowman could be the most visible Olympic coach since Bela Karolyi followed Mary Lou Retton into the spotlight in 1984. His exposure will come in the slowest form of mammalian racing found in traditional athletics. Did he notice that his avocation is the fastest?

"I'm sure there's something to that," Bowman said. "I would love for it to be a vocation some day. I'm not just doing this for fun."

Games at a glance

When: Friday-Aug. 29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

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