Michael Phelps swam like a fish. His body was built like a fish. He seemed more at home in the water than on land, where he drank too much and said too little.
In the public eye, which Phelps could not escape, he was viewed as half human, half fish, a gold-medal-winning marvel with chlorine in his veins.
“I’m not sure the world has ever seen who I am,” Phelps said. “They saw me as a swimmer but not as a person.”
Now, as he steps onto the blocks for his fifth and he insists final Olympics, Phelps wants the world to see who he is behind the goggles, when he’s not stroking toward another victory. Phelps is a new man – clean and sober for more than a year and a half, doting father to his infant son, engaged to the love of his life, reconciled with his father.
Sixteen years after his first Olympics and four years after his most miserable Olympics, Phelps, 31, gushes about his rediscovered love of swimming and his desire to go out knowing he gave his all and had fun in Rio de Janeiro, whether he makes the podium or not.
No doubt he will. Although he set the last of his 29 world records in 2009, the most decorated Olympian in history – 18 gold medals, 22 overall – is ready to contend for an unprecedented four-peat in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley and seeking to avenge his 2012 defeat in the 200 fly. He will be up against rivals Chad le Clos of South Africa, Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, Kosuke Hagino of Japan and teammate Ryan Lochte. He also has chances to medal in the relays.
Phelps won’t win eight golds on eight consecutive nights as he did at the Beijing Water Cube, but he could become the oldest swimmer to win individual gold.
“Going into 2012, I had no training routine,” Phelps said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I tried to fake it. I got in and out of the pool as fast as possible. It’s the complete opposite now. I’m like a kid again.”
Looking back on the London Games, which he treated as an obligatory chore, Phelps said, “I let myself down. I didn’t want to live with those what-ifs.”
Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman said London was a joyless experience.
“It was just a relief,” Bowman said. “It sounds terrible to say you had a four-gold-medal Olympics and, OK, we hated it. But that’s kind of how it was.”
Bowman has been Phelps’ mentor since Phelps was a skinny 11-year-old in Baltimore.
“When Michael was younger, you never saw anybody love swimming the way he loved swimming. Nobody loved anything the way he loved swimming,” Bowman said, his voice catching at the memory. “In 1999, in Orlando, he swam in afternoon heats of the 1,500, super hard, he was just 14. He walked back to the hotel in tennis shoes and his size-22 Speedo – the tiniest thing – and he was so happy with himself. He didn’t even know I saw him but he skipped down the hall to his room in his tiny suit. I said, ‘This kid loves to swim.’
“Michael has gotten back to that and that makes me feel good. Where we are now, he’ll be able to end it and it will all make sense.”
Nothing made much sense in 2014, when Phelps was arrested for DUI after swerving through Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Tunnel in his Range Rover at 84 mph. He had been playing poker at the Horseshoe Casino. His blood alcohol level was nearly twice the allowable limit.
Phelps had pleaded guilty to DUI in 2004, a few months after the Athens Olympics. In 2009, tabloids published a photo of him smoking a bong at a party and he was suspended by USA Swimming. But this time was worse. He spent four days holed up at home, depressed and embarrassed. His family, his friends – including Ray Lewis – and Bowman were worried he would end up dead in an accident and encouraged him to get help. He checked in to The Meadows, a treatment facility in Arizona. There he grew more comfortable in his own skin.
“I’m more engaged. I used to dodge phone calls and questions,” he said. “Whatever I had inside I was able to let it out. I’m more laid back and open. I keep the most important people closer than ever.”
Phelps repaired his relationship with his father, who divorced Phelps’ mother when Phelps was 9. Phelps’ fiancée, Nicole Johnson, describes his personal transformation as “night and day.”
Over his years as a swimming star, Phelps lived in a bubble and focused on a black line, training up to 90,000 meters – 56 miles and 1,800 laps – per week. He came across as robotic and boring.
“I merely went from one meet to the next, one medal to the next, one record to the next,” he said. “A lot went by in a blur.
“I’ve spent more than half my life in a swimming pool. That’s nuts.”
Now Phelps lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and likes to play golf, watch sunsets over Camelback Mountain and cuddle with Boomer. (“We didn’t want a typical name like Michael, and his middle name is Robert, after Grandpa Bob,” Phelps said.)
“It’s pretty crazy how much of a change I see in not having a drink since 2014,” he said. “I don’t have a headache when I wake up. I’m actually happy and productive every day. I’m proud of that.”
He plans to become Bowman’s assistant at Arizona State and continue their lucrative 20-year partnership. Together they own the Michael Phelps Swim School and two race horses – named Water Cube and By A Hundredth.
They still take digs at each other.
“It’s been the best two decades of my life,” Phelps said of Bowman’s guidance.
“It’s been the only two. Everybody has a good first decade,” shot back Bowman, who never intended to become a swimming coach when he was a pianist studying music composition at Florida State.
Phelps and Johnson will bring Boomer to Rio so he can watch his father in his last meet. Maybe he’ll get carried onto the podium.
Like father, like son.
“Boomer’s got the long body and little legs, long arms,” Bowman said, only half-kidding. “I keep trying to move him in a breast-stroke motion. Start early.”