COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Yannick Agnel is annoyed, and Michael Phelps finds it highly amusing.
The towering Frenchman has just finished a grueling set of 100-meter freestyle sprints with coach Bob Bowman's lavishly talented group of swimmers at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Agnel, the 6-foot-8 specimen who won three Olympic medals in London two years ago, is complaining that training partner Conor Dwyer (himself an Olympic medalist) was drafting off him during the set of 100s. He believes Dwyer was hugging the lane line that separated them, riding Agnel's wake instead of doing his own work.
"Let it go," Bowman counsels. "It's all right."
Two lanes over, Phelps is chuckling at the guy he calls "Frenchy."
"We did it to you in '08," the greatest swimmer ever yells to Agnel. "You did it to us in '12."
Phelps is referring to the epic 400-meter freestyle relay duels in the two most recent Olympics – the miracle comeback by the United States to beat France in Beijing, and the payback comeback by the French in the final leg in London. Jason Lezak drafted craftily off Alain Bernard in 2008, and Agnel returned the favor in overhauling Ryan Lochte four years later.
Olympian humor. Just a few jokes among gold medalists.
There are six of those here, with a total of 27 Olympic golds between them – with one 18-gold legend as the centerpiece. Add in the star collegians and a few up-and-coming high schoolers, and this is the most decorated training group in the world at the current time – George Steinbrenner in his heyday couldn't assemble this much athletic talent in one place.
On one side of the pool, Phelps continues his comeback bid for a fifth Olympic berth by knocking heads with Agnel and Dwyer, while three-time gold medalist Allison Schmitt competes against American record-holder Megan Romano. On the other side of the pool, gold medalists Oussama Mellouli and Matt McLean are toiling alongside NCAA champion Chase Kalisz in a withering distance set.
All of these swimmers came to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club from around the country and around the globe to work under the laser-focused Bowman, who has mastered the tricky art of building daily workouts into a one-year plan, and extrapolating from there to a four-year master vision.
"Bob's mantra is long-term development," says Keenan Robinson, who oversees NBAC's dryland program. "His ability to write a seasonal and quadrennial plan is unparalleled in our sport. It makes him very successful, but it also makes him one of the hardest coaches to train for. In an environment of instant gratification, training for something months or years away can be tough. But Bob has never had a bad Olympic Trials."
A vital part of Bowman's four-year vision is the annual pilgrimage to his happy place, Colorado Springs, for a monastic training immersion at high altitude.
"Basically, this is our life right here for a month," Schmitt says, gesturing at the OTC.
The aerobic benefits of altitude training are significant, but so is the mental focus.
"This is all they do, all day long," Bowman says contentedly. "Eat, sleep, train."
That is scant exaggeration. The scenery in the Springs is spectacular, but this is no tourist trip. The training regimen during their stay in the Spartan dorms of the Olympic Training Center is all-consuming: 55 practices across 23 days, plus daily dryland strength workouts, and all of it in the thin air of 6,300 feet. The practice pattern per week: three-a-day, three-a-day, two-a-day, three-a-day, three-a-day, two-a-day, day off.
This particular day is a double, and tomorrow they are off. They are near the end of Camp Bowman, with a trip from here to the Santa Clara Grand Prix on June 19-22 almost offering a vacation. So even though the legs are rubbery, there are smiles on the swimmers' faces as they walk from the 50-meter indoor pool to the dryland facility for their last duty. When the days on are this challenging, that approaching day off is an incalculable luxury.
"I will literally do nothing tomorrow," Phelps says.
It may be hard to see the end goal two years down the road in a different hemisphere, but Bowman firmly believes that there is a direct route from the shadow of Pikes Peak to Rio de Janeiro. And Phelps is his longest-tenured and strongest-bonded Colorado devotee. If there is going to be one more Olympic experience for the man with more medals than any athlete in history, he knows that the investment has to be made here to be paid in full later.
"We've done it too many times," Bowman says, "with too much success."
Bring on the pain.
Bob Bowman is gripping a cup of coffee, pullover zipped to his neck, trying not to shiver.
It's 6:30 a.m. and 45 degrees at the Jimi Flowers Memorial Pool, a drab slab of concrete with five lanes that passes for the OTC's outdoor swim facility. The wind is whistling, making it even colder. This is June in Colorado, where slipping into a Speedo for a morning swim can be torture.
Fortunately for the swimmers, the worst part is getting from the locker room to the pool, where the water temperature is 78 degrees. It's tougher to be on the deck watching.
Most of the NBAC training group is at the state-of-the-art indoor pool, but there are other teams using the OTC at the same time so Bowman takes about half his swimmers outside for the first workout of the day. They will log about 4,000 meters of low-intensity work. Bowman will watch closely but say almost nothing to his athletes as they swim.
"I don't put any pressure on them in the morning," he says. "This is basically a warmup for the whole day. I don't want to put any of my stress on them now, because I'm going to do it later."
One of Bowman's few verbal interactions with the swimmers is to wish Agnel happy birthday. He turns 22 today.
"Bon anniversaire," Bowman says, with impressive Gallic inflection. His French was already passable, but has improved out of necessity in the year since Agnel came to America to train at NBAC.
Agnel is sharing the pool's middle lane with the 6-6 McLean, a Virginia graduate who is requesting '80s rock on Sirius from an NBAC assistant coach. Even at the low-intensity pace of this workout, the Frenchman is not moving with great alacrity this morning.
"If it happens before noon," Bowman says drolly, "he's not really into it."
Bowman, on the other hand, describes himself as "a total morning person." He sets his alarm for 4:45 every day, then wakes up before it. (That also facilitates his huge interest in thoroughbred racing, another sport where training hours start before dawn. Bowman and Phelps currently co-own two horses with names that commemorate Phelps' immortal Beijing Olympic performance: By A Hundredth refers to his heart-stopping victory by .01 second in the 100 butterfly; and Water Cube refers to the name of the aquatic center at those Games.)
In the wee hours, Bowman begins his labor of love: crafting the day's first workout. Armed with a stack of graph-paper spiral notebooks, he writes out the practice plan in meticulous print handwriting. No computer typing for him.
"It would be better if I typed it, but it's not very personal," he says. "And I don't know, I just like to write it."
Once per day, Bowman includes a quote at the bottom of the workout. Stuff like this, from Pat Riley: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better." That fits perfectly with the layers of labor Bowman builds up to establish a base of conditioning that his swimmers can call upon in competition.
At one point Bowman wondered whether the quotes were white noise, being ignored or scoffed at by his swimmers. So one day he left it off, and they asked where it was. The quotes were getting through.
A lifelong bachelor, Bowman has plenty of hobbies but one overriding passion: coaching. He describes himself as a compiler of ideas from various sources, notably the three highly successful coaches he worked under: David Marsh, Paul Bergen and Murray Stephens. Then, over the years, it was a matter of refining it and applying it to his swimmers.
"I think I'm very good at putting the parts together until they add up to something good," he says. "I don't have an original thought. In terms of the nuts and bolts, I use a little bit from everybody. I'm kind of like the Japanese – I can take someone else's idea and make it better."
Bowman is the Library of Congress of swimming workouts. He keeps every notebook, which records every practice. It may not be tech-savvy archiving, but he can dig into his files to see what his team was doing in Colorado Springs years ago, and whether it might apply this year.
"I repeat a bunch of stuff if it works," he says. "There's only so many ways to skin a cat, so I don't mind at all repeating stuff."
In fact, the second workout on this June day at Camp Bowman includes a set that is a callback to a practice plan from May 14, 2006. When Bowman's assistants distribute the workout sheet to the swimmers, Phelps recognizes it quickly.
This is part of the genius of Phelps – even across a seemingly endless career, his mind absorbs and recalls facts like a "Jeopardy!" champion. In '06, when he and Bowman were with Club Wolverine at the University of Michigan – and Phelps was halfway between six golds in Athens and eight in Beijing – he and teammate Klete Keller put on a show one day at the OTC. The workout was 30 100-meter freestyles, and Auburn's top swimmers were in the pool training at the same time.
"I don't know if they were talking trash, or they thought they could hang with us," Phelps says. "So Klete and I were like, 'Let's show them.' We just kind of went off and had a good little workout."
Phelps recalls averaging 1:02 to 1:04 (from a push start, not a dive) in the first 10 100s. Then a minute on the second 10. Then, despite the extreme aerobic demand, a blistering 57-second average on the final 10, topped off by a :55.6 on the last one.
That's fairly insane. Safe to say, Auburn's guys weren't keeping up with that.
"I don't forget things like that," Phelps says.
Sure enough. The next day, Bowman produced the notebook from that day with Phelps' times written next to the main set. His recall was 100 percent accurate.
In his latest iteration, Phelps is doing less work than in the past. And seemingly enjoying it more.
"I don't think I've ever seen him smile this much out here," Bowman says while watching Phelps do pull-ups and box jumps in a dryland session.
Both Phelps and Bowman have hinted at the war of wills that went on between the two of them between the virtuoso performance of Beijing and the impressive-but-imperfect encore in London. Phelps, mentally fatigued and perhaps daunted by following his own incredible act, resisted serious training for a long time. Bowman, the meticulous builder, knew that the missing foundation would have a price come 2012.
"We had a spell where my stomach was in knots every day, wondering whether he was going to show up," Bowman recalls. "And when he did show up, and he did something good, I'd say, 'Good job' and try to encourage him. And he'd say, 'I was two seconds faster in 2008.' … What needed to be done [in London] got done. But it could have been a lot better, and he knows that."
The price was missing the podium in the 400 individual medley, an event he had owned for years in international competition, and being out-touched in the 200 butterfly – Phelps' pet event. The four golds and two silvers still made him the most decorated Olympic swimmer in London, but even while triumphantly riding off into temporary retirement there was a sense of a missed opportunity.
This time around, Phelps is not logging quite as much mileage as his NBAC teammates – though at times it still may be more than he wants. After one morning workout last week, an assistant coach asked him at breakfast how it went.
"G.Y.," was Phelps' response, shorthand for "garbage yardage."
But the legend clearly is enjoying his star-studded training group. His happiness around old pal Schmitt is palpable, and he enjoys rooming with Dwyer. But the fresh blood that has flowed in to train with Bowman brings an invigorating new dynamic to what could be a drudgery-filled old routine after so many visits to Colorado Springs.
"The diversity of our group is pretty fun," he says. "We all get along, we're all joking around. It's just a very interesting, different group than what I've ever had before. The coolest part is we have people that are top five in the world in their events, and we can all step up and race every day. That's pretty rare to have. It's been good for all of us, I think."
Michael Phelps' day in the water is over, but his work as a teammate is not.
As the rest of the NBAC group grinds through the last reps of their main set, Phelps stands on deck and sounds like a coach.
"Come on, guys," he says to Kalisz, McLean and Mellouli, as they gasp between 100s. "Push through."
Finally, the last 100 is completed. An assistant cranks up the sound system, and "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger takes over the facility – in deference to 80s rocker McLean, though he might have been too burnt at the moment to appreciate it. Bowman, who has been whistling, yelling and cajoling his swimmers for nearly 90 minutes, turns and looks at the greaseboard behind him.
On it are written the times of every swimmer in every 100. He snaps a picture of the grid on his phone, and will send it to each swimmer to digest in their downtime. An assistant also records the times in video on an iPad.
"That's really good work," he says to the team. "Good job."
It is just another layer of laps in a countless foundation of them, but there is a purpose behind it. It may be two years and thousands of miles away, but Bob Bowman can see Rio from here.