Phelps' voyage

From Rodgers Forge to the brink of Beijing, the swimmer hasn't always been on cruise control

  • Michael Phelps takes part in a day of training recently at the University of Michigan. "You learn the most from the mistakes you make," he says.
Michael Phelps takes part in a day of training recently at the… (Sun photo by Karl Merton…)
August 03, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Sun Reporter

Michael Phelps was 15 years old the day he returned home to Rodgers Forge from his first Olympic Games in 2000. He had finished 5th in the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney, Australia, even though he was mostly ears and arms at that point, and it seemed as though life could not get any better.

His coach, Bob Bowman, was driving him home from the airport, and when he turned down Phelps' street, Phelps saw something that made him smile. His mother, Debbie, had blanketed his house with banners and American flags to celebrate his return. It looked more like a shrine than a family dwelling. The stern coach was furious.

"Bob was like, 'Debbie, take those down! We don't need those up. There is so much more that's going to happen. We can't do this for everything,'" Phelps says. "I think it was then that I realized you can't get caught up on one thing. You just have to keep going."

Since that day, Michael Phelps has never been big on self-reflection. He rarely, if ever, looks at the gold medals he won in Athens, Greece, in 2004. He doesn't think much about past accomplishments or dwell on the forces that shaped him into the man he is today.

Especially not as he prepares for this week's start of the Beijing Olympics, which many expect will be the pinnacle of his career. If he wins just four gold medals - a virtual lock - he'll be the most decorated Olympic athlete ever. NBC, which paid a reported $800 million for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, has decided to make Phelps the face of the Games. You'll see him every time you turn on your television, and not just in the pool. He'll be featured in a stream of commercials, pitching products including low-interest credit cards, designer watches, skin-tight swimsuits and energy bars.

The past, though, is important. When you watch Phelps swim in Beijing - when you tune in to see if he can accomplish the unprecedented, winning eight gold medals - know that it is possible only because of what has happened in the past four years, after he became famous by winning six gold medals in Athens.

The fist pumps at the end of a race and the grinning poses atop the medal stand aren't as important as the moments that took place when few were watching. Those moments show a teenager outgrowing his adolescence and coping with unexpected fame. They capture ambition as well as failure. There is triumph and disappointment, but there is also growth.

If you could study them, you'd begin to see how time and pain - two of the most powerful forces in a swimmer's life - have shaped the second act of Michael Phelps' career.

You'd understand the uncharted course a great Olympic swimmer had to take as he navigated the choppy waters between boyhood and manhood, and in the process became, at age 23, the greatest swimmer of all time.

Chapter 1: The big mistake
It's Nov. 15, 2004 - a cool, fall Monday morning in Manhattan - and on the Today show set, just a few minutes after 7 a.m., a 19-year-old Michael Phelps sits across from the show's host, Matt Lauer. Wearing a black Speedo polo shirt and gray slacks, Phelps looks nervous and uncomfortable. There are bags under his eyes, hinting at a lack of sleep, and his gaze rarely leaves his lap for more than a few seconds.

Eleven days before this moment, he was visiting his best friend at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. At an off-campus party, Phelps had a few drinks. In the years leading up to Athens, every decision was made with swimming in mind, and so after the Olympics, he was given time to decompress. To be a kid. To leave the pool and make mistakes.

In Salisbury, he made a big one. After leaving the party, he rolled through a stop sign while making a right turn in his Land Rover. He was pulled over and charged with driving while intoxicated.

This is his first television interview since the arrest. Later, Lauer and the Today gang will giggle through a cooking lesson from "The Naked Chef." But in this moment, Lauer puts some hard questions to Phelps.

"For that 12-or 13-year-old boy or girl who's got the poster of Michael Phelps up on the wall in their bedroom, and they're throwing on the swim cap every day, running to the pool to try and be like Mike, what do you say?" Lauer asks.

"I definitely let myself down and my family down," Phelps says, and the camera moves in for a close-up. His eyes only briefly meet Lauer's.

"Let me just ask you for the record," Lauer says. "Do you have a problem with alcohol, or is this an isolated incident?"

"This was an isolated incident," Phelps says.

The past week, Phelps adds, has been one of the hardest of his life. He could not look his mother in the eye when she met him at his lawyer's office after his arrest. He had to sit on a plane and watch people around him read stories about his arrest.

"I think I let a lot of people in the country down," he says. "Hopefully, I still have people out there who are fans and who are supporters."

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