The Olympians: Michael Phelps
by Liz Colville
Swimmer Michael Phelps is one of the greatest athletes of all time—and he’s only 23.
Michael Phelps was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1985. His findingDulcinea birthday profile notes that he started swimming at age seven at the North Baltimore Athletic Club. When he was young, his father, Fred, and his mother, Debbie, divorced, with Michael and his sisters, who also swam, living with their mother. Phelps has been coached by Bob Bowman since the age of 12. He made his first appearance at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the age of 15, finishing second in the 200-meter butterfly. He only finished fifth in that event at the Sydney Olympics, but five months after the Games, he broke the world record in the event. It was the first of many.
Built with a larger-than-average “wingspan,” a height of 6 foot four inches, and size 14 feet, Phelps was made for swimming. At the Athens Games, he won a total of six gold and two bronze medals. Phelps’s strongest stroke is freestyle, but the 200-meter freestyle gold medal and record that eluded him; Ian Thorpe, record-holder in the event since 2001, cruised to first place in that race. But Phelps bounced back from that loss when he dominated the 2007 World Championships, breaking Thorpe’s record and setting five world records, four individual and one relay event: the 200m free, 200m fly, 200m IM, 400m IM and 4x200m free.
Phelps has spent the past four years at the University of Michigan, enrolling in classes but not competing in the NCAA because of his sponsorship deals with companies such as Speedo. Taking a break from life at the North Baltimore Athletic Club, where fellow world record-holder Katie Hoff trains, Phelps now follows a more independent course in life and training. But living independently has had its pitfalls. According to the NBC Olympics Web site, during his early days in Michigan, Phelps used hand soap in his dishwasher, coming home to a kitchen full of suds. He also “had trouble eating cereal,” having forgotten to buy bowls. So he “ate the cereal with milk out of a Gatorade bottle.”
After the Olympics, Phelps will return to Baltimore, where his mother still lives, following Coach Bowman when the latter steps into the CEO position at the North Baltimore Athletic Club. He told the Baltimore Sun on May 11, “I’m not going to swim for anybody else…I think we can both help [NBAC] go further. I'm definitely going to be [in Baltimore] next year.”
NBC has been airing commercials featuring Phelps this summer, including “A Boy and His Dog” and “Eating,” where Phelps discusses his second-favorite pastime and counts off a handful of the eclectic dishes he routinely scarfs down. In understanding Phelps, it may be best to get to know his bulldog Herman; according to Phelps, they have the same personality.
Several Baltimore Sun video interviews leading up to the Olympic Trials peer into the swimming star’s thought process, his routine and his goals for the Games. In these videos, Phelps is at ease and focused, recounting two standout practice days early in June; what makes him laugh and what makes him mad: fatigue, muscle soreness and taunts from Ian Thorpe. “If I’m in a bad mood,” he says, “you can’t make me laugh.” But he adds that Thorpe’s 2004 pronouncement that trying to vie for Mark Spitz’s record was “ridiculous” only fueled his competitive spirit.
Watch Phelps finally defeat the Thorpedo’s 200m free record at the 2007 World Championship in Melbourne. This video includes some flashbacks, in black and white, of the Athens race that Thorpe won in the old world record time of 1:44:71. Thorpe wasn’t in the 2007 race, having retired in 2006 after injuries and dwindling motivation. However, Phelps tried to coax Thorpe back into the pool in 2007, telling the press he’d like the opportunity to race him again.
Phelps will be competing in events in Beijing beginning August 9. Coverage will be broadcast on NBC, USA and NBCOlympics.com. Log in to NBCOlympics.com for multimedia and news coverage preceding and during the Games.