Michael Phelps orchestrates a Pharewell Tour to be savored

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports
(Yahoo! Sports)
(Yahoo! Sports)

LONDON – Beethoven kept composing after the Fifth Symphony.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote more books after "The Great Gatsby."

Michaelangelo didn't call it quits after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

And so it was that Michael Phelps got back in the pool after the great masterpiece of his lifetime, the Beijing Olympics.

He got back in with the reasonable certainty that he would never be that good again. Never win that much, never enjoy that level of dominance, never again shatter world records on a daily basis. His artistic apotheosis had passed.

He got back in with the full certainty of how brutal the work would be for London in 2012. The sport owns you at that level, and it had owned Phelps for a long time already – coach Bob Bowman said that for six straight years from 1998-2004, his star pupil trained every day for the Athens Olympics. Phelps would have to re-submit to the sport's grind while knowing that the payoff would never again be what it was in China in 2008.

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He got back in with nothing to prove, nowhere to go but down. But he got back in anyway for the simplest of reasons.

He wasn't done yet.

"For me, it was a question of if I really wanted to do it," Phelps told Yahoo! Sports in a one-on-one interview last month. "I don't think Beijing had anything to do with it. It was whether I wanted to put myself through it."

Our conversation was after the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. I asked Phelps if putting himself through it all again was worth it.

"I can probably answer that question a lot better after a couple years," he said. "One thing I never, ever wanted to live with is looking back 20 years down the road and saying, 'I wish I'd done that.' "

Starting Saturday in London, the 27-year-old Phelps will do what he's done better than any Olympian ever for the final time: swimming seven events in the stars and stripes before heading into retirement. He won't win eight gold medals this time, and probably won't win seven. He's regressed a bit from his superhuman times of '08, and the competition has improved.

"If you guys want to compare me to that," Phelps said, "it's your decision and not mine."

By deciding to return in 2012, Michael Phelps showed that he's unafraid of every challenger and unafraid of the biggest challenge of all: swimming in the shadow of his own giant legend.

"Every pool," said Debbie Phelps, Michael's mom, "has a story."

Nostalgia has been thick on the Phelps Pharewell Tour. These are his last Olympics – he remembers being in Sydney as a clueless 15-year-old, going to the blocks for the 200 butterfly with his suit untied. Last month was his last Olympic trials, having competed in Indianapolis, Long Beach, Calif., and Omaha twice. Before that were his final swims in familiar haunts like San Jose, Calif., and Austin, Tex., of big meets on Phelps' path from adolescent phenom to adult superstar.

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Going to Austin brought back memories for Debbie. She remembers getting a call at home in Baltimore from 15-year-old Michael in Austin once, in 2001, after the 200 fly in the World Championship trials.

"How was your swim?" she asked.

"Pretty good," he said.

"What was your time?"

"Oh, I broke the world record."

For Debbie, this is actually the culmination of a 30-year swimming odyssey. Michael's older sisters, Hillary and Whitney, were both elite swimmers as well – just not as fast as their baby brother. She's spent half her life on a pool deck or in the stands above a pool deck.

"I don't know what's going to happen when that last swim goes off," she said. "That could be emotional – a big DP Moment, as we call them."

A "DP Moment" is when Debbie cries. It happens often, especially during dramatic races. She was a wreck on several occasions in Beijing, as Michael's bid for immortality survived two incredibly dramatic finishes.

First was the 400-meter freestyle relay win by .08 seconds, when Jason Lezak saved the Americans with a miraculous rally on the anchor leg. Then the 100 butterfly win by .01, somehow beating Serbian Milorad Cavic to the wall when Phelps appeared beaten.

"Everything had to fall into perfect place," Debbie said. "Lezak had to pull it out from the bottom of his toes to win that relay, and then that 100 fly. I was watching that pool get shorter and shorter, and I thought, 'Oh, dear God in heaven.' When that '1' came up on the scoreboard next to his name, I couldn't believe it."

That was a tear-jerker. And there will be tears in the coming days in London – plenty of them – no matter how the races turn out. But Debbie is glad her son came back for this final go-round instead of making the cleaner, easier – but perhaps less fulfilling – getaway after 2008.

"Michael loves what he does," Debbie said. "It's not about how many medals you have. It's about having goals and achieving goals. Am I glad he came back? Absolutely."

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Michael Phelps is famously secretive about his swimming goals. He wrote them down prior to each previous Olympics, but never shared them with anyone but Bowman.

This swan song has been no different.

"This one wasn't written down," Phelps said with a smile. "It was typed."

They were typed shortly after Beijing – but early on in the post-Beijing training cycle, it was impossible to get Phelps focused. The motivation was missing. After climbing Mount Everest, he couldn't summon the energy to start the ascent all over again.

"In 2009, I just didn't want to do it," he said. "I just didn't want to put in the work. There were times I didn't come to practice. It didn't excite me."

The excitable Bowman knew trouble when he saw it – and he got to see it on national television, online and in the newspapers. The infamous picture of Phelps lip-locking a bong at a college party in the months after Beijing led to a public apology and a round of damage control from Team Phelps.

That minor tempest died down quickly, but the post-China malaise lingered. Phelps was absent from morning workouts.

Bowman's calls and texts couldn't force motivation into Michael. Warnings that missed time in 2009 would pay a price later went unheeded. He'd coached Phelps since he was a kid, but nothing was getting through to the burned-out star.

Bowman believes in training – hard training. He doesn't go easy on his swimmers. Missing days and weeks of workouts is not going to fly if he's your coach.

"I found my passion [for 2012] a little easier than Michael did," Bowman said. "Like, the day after Beijing.

"I was clearly frustrated for a while. But as he's come back to it, I've had to learn to control my emotions a little more and work on where we are and where we need to go."

The most important thing Bowman had to do was let Michael figure it out on his own. He was no longer an adolescent who took all his cues from his coach and family. He was an adult, a millionaire, and a guy who had spent years busting his gut while holding his breath and staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool.

It was up to Michael Phelps to make Michael Phelps get back in the pool.

"It was really all about me being able to find the passion again," he said. "That was something I had to find for myself."

When it took about 18 months for the passion to be rediscovered, the results were predictably well behind schedule. American rival Ryan Lochte, Sham to Phelps' Secretariat in Beijing, pummeled Michael repeatedly in 2010 and '11.

"He was just kind of rolling over me," Phelps said. "It wasn't fun."

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Faced with a mortality he hadn't felt since 2004, Michael contemplated doing something he's never done before – reducing the goals he'd typed up after Beijing.

"There were a couple times I wanted to lower them and make them easier," Phelps said. "Probably because I didn't want to put the work in. Bob talked me into keeping them the same, and I'm happy he did that.

"I think goals are something that should never be easy. You should have to work for them and be uncomfortable at times."

All the way up to Spring 2012, he was uncomfortable. Getting back to being Michael Phelps, ruler of the pool, was hard.

The results started to come in Grand Prix meets, giving Phelps new motivation for an intensive six-week boot camp in Colorado Springs in May and June. Bowman loves working his swimmers at altitude, and he liked what he saw leading into the trials.

The Phelps who showed up in Omaha bore resemblance to the dominator of years past. The only problem was Lochte, who showed no signs of giving back the ground he had gained since '08.

When Lochte won the 400 IM on the first night of trials, the message was clear: Nothing was going to come as easily as it had four years earlier. But Phelps nipped his rival in both the 200 IM and 200 freestyle, and also won both his butterfly specialties. The times were not sensational – not compared to what he was swimming in '08, when everyone was armed with super-fast suits that have since been banned – but they were fast enough to reassert Phelps as America's foremost Olympian.

"The results were better than anticipated," he said.

Still, Phelps was smart enough to drop the 200 freestyle from his London schedule. Winning the race would be difficult, and even medaling would be no sure thing – so why not reduce the workload and focus on his better races?

But more importantly, removing that race meant there absolutely could be no repeat of the Great Eight of '08. No pressure to be the Phelps of Olympics past. Now he could simply be who he is today.

And the Michael Phelps of today is freshly appreciative, and perhaps even a touch sentimental.

The first thing he did upon sitting down in a crowded interview room here Thursday was to pull out his phone and videotape the throngs of media there to see him. You get the feeling he's trying to record this last lap for posterity, to soak it up and enjoy what he might have been too tunnel-visioned to appreciate in years past.

"It's kind of been more emotional," he said. "These are the last competitive moments I'll have in my career. You know, it's big."

By the time the final race is completed here, there might even be an MP Moment.

When Michael Phelps does finally swim off into the sunset, life will go on. A dryer life. A quieter life.

He has business interests to attend to – a foundation, swim schools, his desire to see swimming continue its national growth in popularity. And for a Baltimore native who grew up watching the Preakness Stakes and enjoying horse racing, maybe a future in thoroughbred ownership.

On Twitter before this year's Preakness, Phelps asked friend and three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert if he would condition a horse for he and Bowman, who is a hard-core racing fan.

"I think it would be cool," said Phelps, who plans to attend all three Triple Crown races in 2013. "Bob and I have talked about it multiple times."

Select the right yearling at a sale, and the Phelps-Bowman-Baffert plan could be in effect by the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

By then, Michael Phelps will be well into the second act of his life. There will be no regrets about leaving swimming too soon. He's making sure of that right now, with this final act in London.

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