Phelps’ payoff: Living the dream
BEIJING – For the man who is letting his post-Olympics plans creep into his brain with every passing second, there is still a swim awaiting Michael Phelps. But this one is more likely to be in the tropics.
“It’s time to take a little vacation,” Phelps said. “That’s the one thing I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. … Not doing anything. Just sitting, and not moving.”
And that should work out fine, as the world spends the next few months coming to him. There will be the talk show circuit – a fawning affair that began in earnest Sunday night in Beijing, when Phelps did a spot on the “Today” show reviewing his greatest hits. After that it could be “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, and maybe even a fall slot hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
Anything is possible, as Phelps prepares to depart these games in a few days and lug his eight gold medals across America like a politician on the campaign trail. First will be doing some work with his sponsors, including Speedo, which will be cutting a $1 million bonus check for his accomplishment of eight gold medals. And of course, there will be a dump truck filled with new offers for his agents to sort through.
But first, Phelps plans to tie up some loose ends in Ann Arbor, Mich., packing what is left of his things and moving back to Baltimore, where his coach, Bob Bowman, is taking over as CEO of the North Aquatic Club. Phelps already has a new house in Fells Point waiting for him, and a parade is already being prepared for his triumphant return. Somewhere in there, he plans on purchasing a little gift for himself – the word is that he’s leaning toward an Aston Martin.
All of that represents the big payoff – the blissful ride back down the mountain before the hard work starts all over again. And make no mistake, in a few months he’ll be at the bottom again looking at an entirely new trek, this time with a vastly changed swimming program in the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“I’d like to try some other events, maybe not do some of the events I did here,” Phelps said. “Bob has said he wants to start fresh and do things that he hasn’t done before – try new things in workouts, try new training methods. It’s going to be a fun four years.”
That revised agenda could feature a sleeker, faster Phelps than we saw in Beijing. Rather than stay in his comfort zone with events that combine both speed and stamina, Phelps continues to push the idea of paring down to shorter, faster races. That likely means saying goodbye to the 400 and 200 individual medleys, two of his strongest events – but also races he’s tired of in recent years.
Phelps’ specialties in 2012 could be some of the sport’s most exciting races, including the 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, and harder training for the 100-meter butterfly (in which his two Olympic golds have come by a combined five-hundredths of a second). He could also throw in the 200-meter backstroke. Whatever the events, Phelps appears to be planning to spend the next four years training his muscle fibers to be more of the fly-and-die, fast-twitch variety.
“I think we’ll have to see how he is on those sprints, because there is training involved with that,” Bowman said. “I think that he thinks it might be a little easier, but it will be different. I think he can sprint, but I think that he’s more naturally suited to longer events. It would be a change for him, but I think a good one.”
Fans might have to brace for that change, since moving from distance to sprint proficiency is likely to mean taking some lumps in the pool. Right now, Phelps isn’t one of the top freestyle 100-meter sprinters in the world. So he will likely suffer some – and maybe many – losses as he reshapes his body and aerobic capacity for a new style.
“If anyone could do it, it’s Michael,” said Jason Lezak, who captured bronze for the U.S. in the 100-meter freestyle and also anchored the stunning 4x100 freestyle relay win over the French. “The worst thing you can do is tell him that he can’t do something. That’s the quickest way to make sure he can. The races he concentrates on, when it’s time to perform (in the London Games), I’d bet he’ll be the best in the world.”
But fans shouldn’t expect a repeat of eight gold medals. It’s more likely that Phelps will only be aiming to swim in three individual events and three relays come 2012. That pared down focus could also give him a little extra time to promote the sport, something that is at the forefront of his mind coming off his eight gold medals.
“I’ve heard about 70,000 people at (Baltimore) Ravens stadium staying after the preseason game to watch the (4x100 medley) relay on the big screen, to the 100 fly being on the Jumbotron at the Cincinnati Reds game,” Phelps said. “Four years ago, there’s no way that would ever happen.
“I don’t want this sport to be an every-four-year sport. Yeah, we get the most attention every four years, but in between those four years there’s really not as much exposure for us that I would like. … That’s a goal that isn’t going to happen overnight. I think it’s going to happen over time, so that’s something I’m ready to be in the long haul for.”
Still, Phelps’ dream of elevating the sport remains a nebulous one, particularly with only a few major international meets each year. Phelps might have to play the role of Bobby Fischer, taking high-profile match races the way Fischer did in the 1970s, growing the sport by repeatedly facing off against the world’s best champions.
But any grand designs will have to wait for now. Phelps has vacation on his mind, after spending every last ounce of energy and emotion he had banked heading into Beijing. The next few weeks are the only offseason he will get before London, and he’s ready to enjoy them. And then?
“After Bob and I both have a little break,” Phelps said, “it will be time to start re-depositing.”