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Michael Phelps has discussed the demons that followed him from his historic 2008 Beijing Olympics to his second DUI arrest in September 2014, in profiles by Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. But rarely, if ever, has he opened up on camera the way he just did with Bob Costas on NBC Sports.
In a 23-minute extended interview, Phelps wrestled again with those demons, covering at length his six-week stay at Arizona’s The Meadows rehabilitation center in the fall of 2014, but it was his revelations of a lack of training entering the 2012 London Olympics that was perhaps most surprising.
“I didn’t want to have that ‘What if?‘” Phelps said of coming out of retirement to compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “In my eyes, London wasn’t that great. I didn’t prepare for it. We all know that. I just said to myself, ‘If I’m going to do it, this is the only time, and I have to want do it.’ And I just sat on it. And eventually I started wanting to do it again. I started finding that hunger again, and I felt like a kid again. And that’s been the coolest part of the journey so far, actually wanting to go to the pool, wanting to correct some small things and enjoying it. Prior to London, I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I was pushing so many people away, and I just wanted it to be over.”
Lest we remind you he still captured four gold medals and two silvers in seven events in 2012. Only Phelps — whose eight gold medals in eight events in 2008 are an Olympic record and whose 22 medals, including 18 golds, make him the most decorated Olympian in history — could describe such a spectacular performance as ho-hum. All of which led to this from Costas: “You must be so damn good to be able to do what you did in 2012, if now your own testimony is, ‘I was just jacking around.’”
“I basically did that off of pure talent — very, very minimal work,” added Phelps, looking as matured as he sounded. “The last like year leading into London I worked pretty hard, but the other three years I just kind of joked around. I would miss a week or two weeks here and there and just wouldn’t care. So, I think that was the end of the well. That was the bottom of everything I had left in reserve, and it was close to being good. The 400 IM was blah, but I almost won the 200 fly with no training, so this time around I wanted to do it the right way, and that was the only way I was going to come back.”
Phelps’ fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley marked the first time since 2000 he hadn’t medaled in an event, and he came within 0.05 seconds of defeating South African Chad le Clos in the 200-meter butterfly with what he described as no training whatsoever, which has to be a real stomach punch for competitors who spent more hours in the pool. And if anybody doubts the veracity of Phelps’ statements here, his longtime coach Bob Bowman concurred last month with ESPN.
“We went into [London] like everything was under control,” said Bowman. “Yeah, right. It was all spin. Or PR. We’re very good, well-trained at PR. And honestly, for his future, that’s the way it had to be.”
A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:40pm PDT
The legendary training regimen was a facade. It wasn’t that Phelps never trained. He did, especially in 2008, but distractions out of the pool — drinking, gambling and all those demons, especially the ones that stemmed from his parents’ divorce and a broken relationship with his father Fred — kept him from achieving his full potential. Quite a statement from a seven-time World Swimmer of the Year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever competed at 100 percent,” Phelps told Costas in an interview as candid as we’ve seen from him. “I can honestly say that. Six months before the Olympic Trials in 2008, I broke my wrist. Two days later, I had surgery. So, it’s like I was always doing stupid things that held me back, but I managed to overcome that with the hard work that I did put in in the pool. When I was really training back then, it was the best training I’ve ever done, but I had other things that would take away from what I was doing in the pool, and I was probably never really 100 percent. In ’08, I was probably like 85-90 percent. So, this time around, with the body I have, I’ve given 100 percent. I can say that.”
Before the 2012 Olympic Games, Phelps skipped practices, and when he did show, he fought with Bowman. Following London, he went six months without working out after the 2012 London Olympics. His weight rose to 230 pounds. “You couldn’t find an ab,” he told Costas, adding: “I just didn’t care.”
Still, he ended his retirement in April 2014, resuming competition, but his awakening didn’t come until that second DUI arrest five months later. Shortly afterwards — not before depression left him curled up in the fetal position for five days — he checked into rehab. Since then, he’s found an inner peace, healing childhood scars and rediscovering a childlike wonder. He’s mended his relationship with his father and applied what he’s learned with his newborn son Boomer. Even Bowman, who perhaps knows him best and required more convincing than anyone, concedes Phelps is a changed man.
“I can literally say the life that I live now is a dream come true,” added Phelps. “I’m able to do what I love in the pool, out of the pool, I have a beautiful baby boy, a gorgeous fiancé, a great family. I’m closer to the people who like me and love me for me than I ever been in my life, and I would never change that. I truly am living a dream come true.”
A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on Jul 22, 2016 at 4:36pm PDT
Phelps turned 31 on June 30 and will become the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympics when he enters the Rio pool Monday. He hasn’t had a sip of alcohol since Oct. 4, 2014. His U.S. Olympic teammates selected him as the nation’s flag bearer for Friday’s Opening Ceremony. Physically, he told Costas, he feels as fit as he did in 2008, even if the endurance of a 23-year-old is no longer there.
“Physically, I’m probably stronger now than I was then,” added Phelps, who qualified individually for the 100- and 200-meter butterfly races as well as the 200-meter individual medley. “Mentally, I’ve been able to go through some things that I think have helped me more now than how I was then.”
As for whether 100 percent of Phelps now is any match for 85-90 percent of him in 2008, “I would love to say better,” he told Costas. “Time will tell.” His first event in Rio will be Monday’s 200 butterfly competition — a rematch against le Clos, who called out the then-suspended Phelps after posting a winning 100 butterfly time of 50.56 seconds at the 2015 FINA World Championships.
“I just want to put a message out to Michael,” le Clos told TV cameras. “He’s been talking about how slow the butterfly has been. I just did a time he hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now.”
Eight hours later, Phelps bested le Clos’ time with a winning effort of 50.45 at the 2015 U.S. Nationals.
“I haven’t really raced him that much, but I’m looking forward to that,” Phelps told Costas at the end of the interview. “I actually just watched that race the other day for the first time, and I wasn’t happy afterwards. … After watching the replay a couple weeks ago, I could’ve won. If I hit the third turn, I win. In reality, I didn’t hit the third turn; I didn’t win. I accepted that I didn’t deserve to win. That’s the thing about sports. The people who win deserve to win. And Chad deserved to win that day.”
This war of words has fueled Phelps, and it seems to have done the same for le Clos.
“I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form, so he can’t come out and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been training’ or all that rubbish that he’s been talking. Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier,” Le Clos told the Associated Press from the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. He added, “Look, I don’t want to say it’s easy to swim by yourself, but it’s a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50 meters. That’s what he’s got to think about really.”
May the best man win next week, and Phelps is ready to accept that now, even if it isn’t him.
“I know I could look back at how I prepared and I would know that Bob and I did whatever we could do to prepare ourselves to be the best,” Phelps told Costas of whether his best is no longer good enough to win. “That mentality I don’t think I’ve had, and I definitely didn’t have in London, so I think now being able to prepare how we have, I’m willing to accept whatever results I get. I mean, sure, will I be ticked off? Probably, but I’ll know deep down inside that that was the best I could do that day.”
That’s something he couldn’t say in 2012 — probably why he’s back in 2016. And while a victory in Rio would make him the oldest swimmer to ever win gold at the Olympics, Phelps isn’t ready to concede retirement ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games, stopping short of calling Rio his last stop with reporters.
“I’ll say this just in case of a comeback … my potential last Olympics,” Phelps told the media on Wednesday. “Just so you guys don’t beat me to death if I comeback. No, I’m not. But I’ll just say that.”
Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski reports live from the streets of Rio:
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