They forged one of the most unique relationships in all of sports, a coach who took the child of recently divorced parents under his wing at age 11 and nurtured him to greatness in the pool. Along the way, they’ve yelled and screamed at each other and butted heads from time to time. They also developed an enduring relationship that surely will last a lifetime, even with Phelps retiring after his final race of the Olympics on Saturday.
Phelps has never considered working with another coach, a truly remarkable bond in the finicky world of sports, where it’s common for athletes to switch up their coaches on a regular basis, to work with someone new when there’s the slightest slump in performance or simply a need to have someone new in their ear, doling out advice.
Tiger Woods, for instance, is on his third coach since turning pro.
It’s impossible to imagine Phelps with anyone other than Bowman.
“Bob knows Michael like the back of his hand,” said Phelps’ mother, Debbie. “Michael knows Bob’s going to get him where he needs to be not only in the pool, but life.”
She chokes up a bit, knowing how important the 47-year-old Bowman has been to her son. It would be easy to say he became a father figure to Phelps after his parents divorced and his dad largely fell out of his life. But, really, their relationship runs even deeper than that, working well on many levels — athlete-coach, parent-child, business partners, best friends.
“We have a great relationship,” Phelps said. “Obviously, we have our days on and off where we can get at each other, but I think the biggest thing is we’re both very passionate people, and that’s why we’ve worked so well together over the last couple of ... well, a long time. Geez.”
While Phelps is extremely guarded about who he lets into his inner circle, and reticent about revealing too many of his emotions to the outside world, there are no secrets between these two. They love to poke at each other — Bowman knowing just what to say to get under Phelps’ skin, the swimmer throwing the occasional tantrum but usually going along with whatever the coach says.
“We both love what we do and we want to be the best we can,” Phelps said. “I trust him. When I was 11 years old, I trusted him. I don’t know why I did then, but I did.”
“You were brave,” Bowman quipped.
While Bowman describes himself as a mediocre swimmer — he competed at Florida State in the 1980s — his real knack was teaching others how to swim. His hard-nosed methods aren’t for everyone. Katie Hoff switched to Bowman after the 2008 Olympics but was too sensitive to stand up to his verbal berating. Phelps seems to thrive on it, spurred on to prove his coach wrong when he doles out a tongue-lashing.
“It works,” Phelps said. “I have full trust in him, and he has been the one person that’s got me where I am today. He’s the best coach for me.”
There’s no disputing the results.
Phelps is the winningest Olympian in history and captured his 18th gold medal in his final race, the 4x100-meter medley relay. That would leave him with twice as many golds as anyone else. In all, he’s captured 22 medals, plus a staggering 26 long-course world championships in off-Olympic years.
By the numbers, no one comes close — a tribute to the athlete, first and foremost, but also to his coach.
“I would say the reason we have so well together is that we are both absolutely honest with each other all the time,” Bowman said. “We know exactly where each other stands at all times. That can mean some fireworks sometimes, because neither one of us likes to back down on anything. But I think that’s the deal. We don’t really play any games. We just keep it simple.”
That’s the way Phelps likes it.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about their relationship is how so little seems to have changed over the years.
Sure, Phelps has grown from a boy to a man, maturing a lot but also stumbling along the way — a drunken-driving arrest in 2004, a three-month suspension by USA Swimming in 2009 after he was pictured inhaling from a marijuana pipe. Both insist there is more of an equal partnership, with Phelps exerting more control over his life and his training regimen.
But, really, there’s little doubt who’s in charge.
Right up to the very end of his career, Phelps rarely attended a news conference without Bowman at his side. When the coach thought it best for Phelps to drop one of the events he qualified for this year at the U.S. Olympic trials, there was no push back from Phelps. In fact, even Bowman is surprised at how much influence he has over one of the most famous athletes in the world.
“He likes the way we do it, and still does today, which is really odd,” the coach said. “I’ve tried to even change some things for him, some mental things, and he’s like, ‘We’ve never done this before.’”
Bowman believes it might have something to do with Phelps being diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child.
“He likes his routine,” the coach said. “It helps him to manage things when they’re predictable and he knows what they are.”
Debbie Phelps probably cringed from time to time at some of the methods the coach used, but she always knew he had the best intentions.
“Bob always challenged him. Bob always put roadblocks in the way,” she said. “The two of them bash heads continuously. Bob is so anal — that’s my word for him — but God, is he passionate. Is he excellent? Does he know his craft? Yes, he does.”
Bowman has provided plenty of lessons outside the pool, as well.
Debbie Phelps remembers when her son was just learning to drive around their Baltimore home and needed to get to a physical therapy session. The coach was along for the ride, and he made young Michael get behind the wheel, even though it was rush hour on the Beltway.
“Michael was like, ‘I don’t want to do that,’” the mother recalled. “Bob’s like, ‘I don’t care.’ He kind of put that in front of him, that you’ve got to keep yourself focused.
“There were many times,” she went on, “when Michael was younger that he was kicked out of practice. He knew that he had to stay at the pool until I got off work and got to the pool to get him.”
After Phelps won six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, Bowman left the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to take over as the coach at the University of Michigan. Phelps went along with him, training and taking a few classes though he never seriously pursued a degree. When Bowman returned to the Baltimore club a few years later, Phelps came back, too.
“It’s very unusual, particularly since we’ve been in a couple of different environments,” Bowman conceded. “That probably helped, actually. If we had just stayed in Baltimore, we would not have had that variety.
“I honestly think we’ve been together so long because I’m just real honest with him. I have said many times, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine. I understand. But I tell him, ‘This is how we’re going to it.’ And he’s always like, ‘OK, this is how we’re going to do it.’”
For someone who’s about to lose the most famous athlete he’ll likely ever coach, Bowman seems downright at peace with Phelps’ decision to retire at age 27. And Bowman plans to spend at least a year NOT doing what he does so well. Instead, he’ll do some traveling, some work at his swim club, devote some time to his other big passion, horse racing.
You’ll be more likely to see him at the Kentucky Derby than on a pool deck.
“I’ll still be running my team, doing some stuff like that,” Bowman said. “I’m just going to try to not be quite so rigidly scheduled for a year. Then I’ll go back into it and see how it’s going.”
Rest assured, he’s not going to nag Phelps to make a comeback before the next Olympics.
And he’s not going to look for the next Phelps, either.”No, no, no,” Bowman said adamantly. “I can’t do that again. One is plenty, trust me.”