Commentary

Intense? Insane? Maybe, but Bowman is the architect of Phelps' quest

Updated: August 14, 2008, 7:23 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- For most of his life, the word that has clung to Bob Bowman like a new Speedo is "intense."

Surely there has to be another applicable adjective for the man who coaches Michael Phelps. So I asked him to supply one.

"Besides 'insane'?" he asks with a laugh. "How about 'intense and insane.'"

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps/Bob Bowman
AP Photo/Mark BakerAfter the Olympics are over, Michael Phelps plans to follow coach Bob Bowman back to the North Baltimore Aquatic Center in Baltimore.

If that's the way you want it, Bob. But if ever there were a method to a man's madness, we're seeing it now.

Bowman is the master architect of Phelps' grand quest, the painstaking planner who devised this ambitious drive to the great eight Olympic gold medals in one Games. For 12 years, from precocious child prodigy to full-grown superstar, from Baltimore to Ann Arbor, from Sydney to Athens to Beijing, Phelps' every arm stroke and dolphin kick has been meticulously scripted by Bowman.

It's been Bowman's game plan -- then, Phelps dives in and flawlessly executes it.

The result has been a success of unprecedented proportion. Phelps deserves and receives the vast majority of the credit, but he owes a debt to the 43-year-old taskmaster and teacher who envisioned the big picture, then sweated the small stuff. Bowman's work with Phelps has been a coaching masterpiece.

The relationship has at times been paternal, at times adversarial, and at all times successful. Bowman is unmarried and has no kids; Phelps has an estranged relationship with his father, as his parents divorced when he was young. Bowman is the swimming obsessive who found a young man who shared his passion for perfection and appetite for work.

He has other interests, thoroughbred racing among them. But in Michael Phelps, Bowman has found his Secretariat.

"I don't think I could be where I am today with any other coach," Phelps said. "He's so intelligent in this sport and cares about every one of his athletes. He's so thorough. He's always on top of things. I'm fortunate to have a coach like him."

In Bowman, Phelps has a coach who saw brilliance in an 11-year-old and has never stopped pushing him to maximize it. He's never allowed Phelps to settle for simply being great when he could one day be capable of being the greatest.

"I do like to keep the pressure up," Bowman said, "because that's how he gets better. It's not like every day I'm in his face, but when somebody's that good, you have to coach hard to keep him going."

[+] EnlargeBob Bowman
Phil Carter/US PresswireBob Bowman has been working with Michael Phelps since the swimmer was 11 years old.

Bowman hasn't just coached hard. He's coached completely. Any phase of Phelps' life that pertains to swimming falls under Bowman's aegis.

"Bob teaches him, advises him, guides him, pushes him," said American national team head coach Mark Schubert.

Phelps' stroke mechanics all have been sculpted by Bowman. He's tinkered for years with every component, until Phelps' form has approached perfection.

Workouts? Of course Bowman is in charge there, too. But also warm-ups, warm-downs, stretching, massages, calorie intake and meal times, too. The daily routine runs on Bowman Standard Time.

Take, for instance, Bowman's recitation of Phelps' schedule Thursday in Beijing:

"We had breakfast at 8. We usually have breakfast at 7, but this morning, it was at 8. Before that, he usually takes a shower, so at 7:30, he was up and showered. We went at 8 for breakfast. At 8:30, we were on a bus to [the Water Cube], then we did some stretching and warm-ups for 30 to 40 minutes. Then he puts on his [competition] suit and does more warm-ups. Then he swims, and after that, he has lactose testing to make sure everything's in order. Today, he had a massage -- normally he has doping, [but] he didn't today. He always has a massage. Then he'll eat, take a nap and then come back on the bus and do it all again, usually twice a day. I always plan those warm-ups so they are exactly timed. He starts stretching two hours before [a race] and is in the water an hour and a half before. He's always done those things, really."

That sound hands-on enough?

He also is in charge of the competition schedule. Bowman selects the meets and decides which events Phelps will swim when he gets there.

It was Bowman's prescient decision to subject his star pupil to a seemingly suicidal mission at a meet in Columbus, Ohio, last April: swim three finals within 45 minutes against some of the best competition in the nation. He finished fourth in the 100 breaststroke, second in the 200 freestyle and first in the 100 butterfly while maintaining a heavy training schedule.

[+] EnlargeBob Bowman
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBob Bowman says he has gradually loosened his grip on Phelps -- outside of the pool -- as the swimmer has gotten older.

Why do something that hard? To prepare him for something even harder: 17 swims in nine days during the Olympics.

"You couldn't get any better or more specific training than that," Bowman said contentedly.

Phelps so completely trusts Bowman with his career path that at times he doesn't even ask where it's going. Before the U.S. Olympic trials, Phelps said, he didn't know which events he was swimming.

At the trials, Bowman sat alongside the 23-year-old Phelps in almost every news conference. As often as not, Phelps would shrug a response to a question and defer to Bowman for the answer.

"I just swim," Phelps has said, over and over. And it's true. Bowman handles everything else.

Bowman first put together the quest for eight gold medals in 2004, when Phelps was 19. He's tinkered with it a bit in the four years since Phelps won six gold medals and two bronze in Athens, and the most notable change was a relocation to Michigan as the coach of the Wolverines. When Bowman moved, Phelps went with him.

And now that Bowman has announced a return to North Baltimore Aquatic Center after the Olympics, Phelps will go back there with him, too.

"We've been through a lot together and will be together the next four years," Phelps said.

How does he make a living?

After serving as Michigan's head swimming coach and serving as head of Club Wolverine in Ann Arbor, Mich., Bob Bowman will be moving back to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club after the Olympics. Phelps will follow him there.

Bowman will serve as head of NBAC and will receive a salary from the club (Bowman's exact salary is unknown, but some coaches at elite-level clubs make six-figure salaries). Any swimmers who independently work with Bowman, such as Phelps, pay for the coach's services. Bowman reportedly also receives money from Speedo and other endorsements. Various media outlets reported Phelps makes $5 million a year in endorsements. Bowman made $80,000 when he went to Michigan in 2004, plus a car, according to reports.

-- Amy Rosewater, staff

Bowman is as hands-on as any coach in America, but as Phelps has grown up, the coach gradually loosened his grip. Phelps lives on his own in Ann Arbor and has a greater degree of independence -- when he's not in the pool.

"There's a big difference in what I saw with Bob in Athens and what I see here," Schubert said. "Bob was a lot stricter then; Michael was younger. Now he can sit back and let Michael make some decisions."

Said Bowman: "You have to use every tool in the toolbox, not so much the hammer these days."

The hammer was the only tool Bowman knew in his younger years, one he often used on himself. He trained himself into exasperated burnout as a swimmer at Florida State, opting not to compete his senior year. There was no limit to how hard Bowman would push himself, but there was a distinct limit to his talent.

"I sucked," he said.

After that, Bowman opted not to use his child psychology degree and pursued coaching instead. He bounced around from one club team to another, from Florida to Cincinnati to Las Vegas to Birmingham, Ala., to California. He never stayed anywhere for more than two years before landing in Baltimore, where he worked for the highly regarded coach Murray Stephens.

And one day, in 1996, a really fast 11-year-old named Michael Phelps walked into Bowman's life and changed it forever.

Truth is, they've changed each other forever.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.