I came to know Michael Phelps in the summer of 1996. He was 10 or 11 years old. I coached the senior workout in the morning and then spent my days at the pool managing the facility. It didn’t take long to notice that every day there was this bleached haired skinny kid, raising hell around the pool all day long. In the next couple of months I got a chance to see him swim in some swimming meets and you could really tell that this kid could swim. I thought he was really a raw talent. He needed some development in his stroke technique but he was full of energy and fiercely competitive.
I basically split Michael’s career into these five sections
1) His introduction to swimming at age 7 and 8.
2) The developmental period at age 9 and 10.
3) The transition period from 11 to 12 years old. (for you age group coaches out there, particularly of young boys, Michael’s story is very interesting as an 11-12 year old.)
4) His breakthrough stage from 13-15 years old.
5) The high performance stage. (I hope will last past age 17)
Michael started with our program at age 7. He was born into our program. Michael’s parents were both athletes when they were young. His father played college football and his mother ran track. They placed a high value on athletic competition and the values that it brought to their family. The Phelps family started with their two daughters on the swim team. Hillary and Whitney both became quite accomplished swimmers. Whitney was actually on the World Championship Team in the 200 butterfly and was a National Champion and I think her background was real important to Michael’s development. Michael grew up in an environment where there was already an understanding of high level swimming, commitment, and what it took to succeed. When Michael was born they were living in Harper County, almost an hour North of our pool. They were making that commute every day, but by the time Michael really got started the family had already moved to within 10 minutes of our pool so you can tell he had already made a commitment to our program.
Michael’s father is a State Policeman. His mother was a schoolteacher and now is a high-ranking administrator in the Baltimore County public schools. There is a strong educational emphasis in his background and also a strong background of discipline. They divorced when he was about 7. He lives with his mother. Both parents are active in swimming. His father is a meet official and his mother organizes all of the workers for our swimming meets and that is something that I have noticed is common in all world class swimmers. Their parents may not be overly involved in his swimming part, but they are involved in swimming and they are at every meet and are highly committed to our team.
Michael started out in the NBAC stroke clinic, probably our most famous graduate to date. The stroke clinic was one hour per week on Sunday afternoons with Coach Cathy Leers who directs our swim school now and all of our aquatic programs in Meadowbrook. The interesting thing about the stroke clinic was that we found out a lot about Michael. He did not want to put his face in the water so Cathy solved that by having him swim on his back all the time so his initial competitive swimming experience was on his back. He could swim on his back pretty well so he did that for a 12-week session.
He then moved onto the swim team itself, which was our Level I, working out three times a week for an hour, with Coach Julie Gorman. Julie is one of our most accomplished NBAC swimmers. She is a World Championship Swimmer and NCAA Champion, third in the Olympic Trials twice I believe in the 200 butterfly. Maybe not coincidentally that gave Michael his initial and most important foundation in butterfly swimming. Julie was a very tough coach. Michael was pretty high strung in those days and it was not unusual, I am told, to come in and have Michael in the corner getting some motivation from Julie while the group was swimming. She did a great job with him and he progressed really rapidly during that first year. All the while, he was playing baseball, soccer and lacrosse and I want to put a footnote on that because the way the Phelps’ operated, swimming was the high priority sport, even though he loved to play baseball, soccer and lacrosse. He was the best player on the lacrosse team. He was the best baseball player and he was the best soccer player. Swimming always had a priority so while he was doing these things he never missed a swimming practice, maybe for the championship baseball game he didn’t come to Saturday practice, but for most of his career swimming was the focused event, yet he enjoyed these other sports.
In the development stage age 9-10 Michael moved into Level II where he was working out four times a week for an hour and 15 minutes with Coach Keith. In the next phase of the developmental stage he practiced five times a week for an hour and a half with Coach Tom Heinz. He continued to play baseball, soccer and lacrosse so he had a very good general athletic background and he had a superb competitive background. He liked to play lacrosse so he could knock those other kids over. He liked to be the center of the game. I think it helped him in the long run.
At NBAC times are very important. That’s the bottom line. We judge our progress by how fast our kids swim and for swimmers like Michael who are talented age group swimmers, the top 16 time rankings are an invaluable tool. We want to see what the standard is and where you fit in that standard. Michael made it into the top 16 rankings early in his career. He then started looking at National Age Group records. Now he looks at the world rankings and he approaches them the same way. He would devour these rankings. Even when he was very young he would spend an hour looking at the rankings in Swimming World and see where he was and where he wanted to be. When he was 9 he had his first top 16 ranking – #1 in the 50 fly. He was 5th in the 100 fly. He really wasn’t doing that much training in the early days, working on his stroke technique and just getting a feel for swimming. His 100 IM was 15th, helped out largely by a non-existent breaststroke at that point; non-recognizable I might say. An important point that I have noticed is the best swimmers are going to be there because they don’t know about the rankings. They know what they are, but their training is going to put them in the top of it right away. When Michael was in the World Rankings he started off with this really good time at age 12 and then went up. I think you have to be prepared for that and you have to expect it from your best swimmers. For the other swimmers, maybe they go in at 150 and their top ranking is going to be 50 or maybe 100, but with the very best swimmers they are going to move up quickly.
He started swimming some more events in the long course season. He started swimming backstroke. That summer he ranked second in the 50 fly. His 100 fly was a 1:10, which I think is much better than a 1:03 short course time, and he had a 200 IM 1st place ranking.
He went into the next short course season and had somewhat of a breakthrough in that he tied the National Age Group record – his first one in the 100 back. He was quite an accomplished backstroker at a young age. I am not sure technically, but certainly competitively. He added a couple of 1st place rankings in the butterfly events he had a 1:00 in the 100 fly. He couldn’t quite break the minute, but did a good job. He swam a 2:15:38 in the IM, which sort of told you where he was headed. In the long course season as a 10 year old he got three more National Age Group records. These times were done in one meet, our June meet and then he aged up. So, at the end of this stage he had achieved 4 National Age Group Records as a 10 year old and he was getting ready to go in this transition period which I think is most interesting about his development.
In the transition period Michael was in Level IV for the early part of the short course season of his 11 year old year. He swam five times a week for two hours a day. He was still only going five times a week because he felt like he didn’t need that much more work.
He next moved into the level that I was coaching practicing 7 times a week, once per day for two hours of swimming and 30 minutes of dry land. We had probably the most significant occurrence in Michael’s career when he was 12 and I called his parents, Debbie and Fred in for a meeting to discuss his long-term future. At this point everybody knew Michael was a pretty good swimmer. We knew that he could progress and be good, but we didn’t have like unbelievable expectations. One thing that we wanted to clear up in this meeting was where he was going to go to high school so I wanted to approach it early because in our area, high school swimming does exist and it does not always compliment club swimming. We wanted to sit down and really discuss what would be best for Michael in terms of education and his long-term view of the sport. At the meeting we discussed that there were several private schools, one which North Baltimore had been aligned with for 20 years. Loyola did a good job of molding people into sort of a homogeneous group that we felt someone like Michael could maybe be hurt performance wise by doing that. One of the things that I have tried to teach Michael through his whole career is the higher you go the more isolated you become. If you want to be like everybody else don’t go very high. Ian Thorpe is not like anybody you have ever met. We felt like being in an environment where there was a huge social draw and almost a fanatically strong team component would not be good for him so we ended up choosing a public high school, which was fine for his mother. She worked in the public school system where they had no high school swim team and where we felt he could develop better in terms of his long-term commitment to the sport. That meeting was very important and up until that time I think it is important to note and even after this, I had a very swim parent relationship with Debbie and Fred. That meant I talked to them as little as possible because I don’t like talking to parents. I would see them at a swim meet and maybe in passing if they were picking Michael up. I tell them he is doing well or he is doing poorly or he got kicked out of practice. In general we were not close personally and even today, we kind of maintain that because I think it is important that the coach be the coach and the parents be the parents. This was the first time that we had really sat down together and discussed what the future might hold for him. I explained that he is going to be a very good swimmer and that they should prepare for that and the school situation would really make a big difference in how things went down the road.
When Michael came into my group it was quite obvious that he had some stroke issues in every stroke, particularly in the breaststroke. The breaststroke was not even a stroke and we decided that we were going to target that and his freestyle. Michael was very open to improving his breaststroke because he knew that was his biggest weakness in the IM so we made that a huge focus and he made what I would consider to be dramatic progress in that area. The way that we focused him on that was we would set a goal that as an 11 and 12 year old he would have a top 16 ranking in breaststroke. That is something that really motivated him so we were working toward it and working toward it and as it turned out we never got there. You will see later on that he did make a huge stride in breaststroke based off the work he did as an 11 & 12 year old. His freestyle was good, but it was the spider you know, ok water bug so I decided that was going to change. I had seen him do a 6 beat kick sometimes when he was doing a 50 fast or something like that and his stroke looked good. So I thought I’d sneak it up on him. He would be doing a set and I would say ok, the last two of these do your big kick. I never talked about a 6 beat kick. I don’t think he knew what that meant and he would do it and he would go from 35 for a 50 to 29 so I thought this is good and my brilliant coaching plan was that we would just add more, more and more. After a while I noticed that just wasn’t working. He taking too long and one day I talked to him before practice and said Michael we have a little something we need to do deal with and he said what is that. I said you are doing a 6 beat kick all the time from here on out. I don’t ever want to see a 2 beat again. It didn’t make him very happy. It made me happy. To make my point, because at this point in his career he was still feeling me out, I said if I see you do the 2 beat kick you are out of here. I knew Michael couldn’t stand to be dismissed from practice. He loves to train. He doesn’t like to be embarrassed by being seen as being not able to handle work. That was really the only way I could get him to do it because he didn’t really respond to boy that was really a great 6 beat kick, don’t you feel good about yourself. We had to use the hammer a little bit, the first day he got in and he lasted 400 yards – outta there! The next day it might have been 800. The bottom line was, every day for a week he was out in the lobby crying because he was kicked out of practice. It only took a week. By the end of the week he got kicked out after about 6,000. The following week and from then on out he did a 6 beat kick and his training took a quantum leap. His performance in the meets, therefore, took a quantum leap forward. I thought that was the single most important thing that we did teaching-wise with him because it showed him that making a technical change, even though it might be difficult, had a big effect. I think your most talented swimmers aren’t into the difficult sometimes. Everything is so easy, he doesn’t like to be frustrated, but I thought that he learned that going through that process was valuable so it was really good for him in the long term. He has maintained that throughout his career until now that he is a big muscle man, he wants to save his legs on the warm-up. I am going to publicly let him know today – guess what, we are going back to the future on Monday. You heard it here first.
ATTITUDE AND DISCIPLINE, DEVELOPMENT AND BUTTERFLY. Michael had a pretty good butterfly stroke. There was kind of a hic-cup in his stroke. He would breath late. I don’t know if he would breath late or early. I can never figure it out, but when you see it, you know it’s not right. We would work on that sometimes. We started on a pattern here, which has continued and has slowly gotten better. He could figure out that if he really wanted to push my buttons he would do what I called a baby stroke, head up, no kick, and that is how he would swim butterfly a lot of the time at this stage. I just didn’t have him do butterfly. If I had him do butterfly it was something fast or it was in an IM, or I would have total gray hair by the time we were through practice. It took a long time for him to get to a point mentally where he had enough confidence to swim butterfly correctly in practice. The theme that we use today is that we do not do butterfly unless it is done well. He can throw in some baby strokes now if he wants to, but we do not do too much of that. I think that this summer we got a good lesson in why he needs to keep working on that butterfly.
PERFORMANCE GOALS. For this 11-12 period where he was a national record holder at 9-10, shouldn’t you be at 11-12? Let’s start looking at those events. Performance results – zero. Not one. Your best 10 year old boy in the country in 4 events could not even touch the National Age Group record as an 11-12 year old. I think that is because he wasn’t physically the same guy as those people who had set the records. I think Michael might be #2 all time at 2:03 in the IM. It was a hard period because Michael wanted to see his times up there. He was getting better and he was doing some pretty good rankings, but he didn’t get there in terms of what our ultimate goal was.
At Michael’s first practice with me, May 5, 1997, it was a rather ambitious main step. I tried to make a point. I was going to ask him to do some things that might be demanding. Just kind of see how things shook out. At this point he had just turned 11 years old. The thing that I really liked about it was that he did the main set which was pretty long and it ended with four rounds of four 100s free. The first round are on 1:15, the next round are on 1:10 and the final round were on 1:05. We went through this big set and he was swimming pretty well. I cannot remember what his IM was. It must not have been too spectacular, I didn’t write it down, but I did write down the last four 100s in that on 1:05 his first one was :59, second one was :58 high, he went :58 flat and 57.2 on the end and he was third in line. By the time he was done he was first and that was the first time when I thought, boy this kid can really swim. 11 years old I thought that was pretty impressive. I mean his best 100 free might have been :54. So that was good repeating and this was typical of some of the stuff we might do with that group. He was the youngest kid in the group. This was mainly a 13-14 year old training group, but we had no choice with what to do with him. He didn’t fit in the 11-12 group at all and after about a month, he was the best one in this group so that is why I think you might look at this set and say wow, 11 years old, that is pretty ambitious. We had to give him what he needed.
In the short course records you will see as an 11-12 year old he was rather mediocre compared to his 10 year old records. Once again, I think a good lesson for age group coaches is being the hot shot 11-12 year old is a different story than being a 10 year old. In the long course season the same kind of thing. I mean, he didn’t manage to get there in the 50 fly and the 100 fly, and his 200 IM was a 2:23. He ranked first in those, but with kind of average times. I don’t think they were unbelievable. He went through the next winter and started adding more events; the 500 free, that was the one we were going to try to take a shot at the record which is 4:47. His breaststroke was improving. His IM was a 2:03 IM, which was the first 2:03.3. He continued long course as a 12 year old but he didn’t get any #1 rankings because he had only one shot and didn’t have much opportunity to rest.
The most important phase – THE BREAKTHROUGH 13-15. The secret weapon – the growth spurt happened! There is nothing like the pituitary gland to make you look like a good coach. He went into the senior performance level. He was still 7 X 2 ½. On his 14 year old year we added two mornings, 2 ½ hours long prior to the Nationals in 2000, just to give him a little touch of work and I might add his brilliant coach was ready to go on these mornings a little earlier. Actually the fall of that year we tried to do it and he absolutely wasn’t ready. What was the term? You are ruining my life. I spend 90% of my time at the swimming pool so I said fine, no mornings and by the time we got here he was ready and really started to look forward to them and actually got a lot out of the mornings. That was a big coaching mistake on my part, to try and start that because I thought he was ready for the work. He was ready for the work physically, but he wasn’t ready emotionally. In the summer he did about 10 sessions per week – two hours with a half-hour of dry land, which was a little bit progressive of course. At the end of 1998 when he turned 12 & 13 he had a very poor summer. I think he ended up second in the Zone Meet with a 2:15 200 Meter butterfly and that was his only ranking that summer. He had the growth spurt, which really helped. He made his first Junior National standards, which was an important goal for him because of the time. People thought that was a big deal. He was 13 when he made those with absolutely no preparation, no shaving, no nothing, just straight swim and then he went to the Junior Nationals in St. Louis and had kind of a mixed bag of performance.
Michael’s big breakthrough came in 1999, the Summer Junior Championships after he made his cuts in the Spring and he swam that summer to make the National Cuts. The great story about that is at this point I felt like he needed to be more focused in his goal setting so I sat down with him one day at lunch which was totally new. I took him out of the environment of the pool. I picked him up and we went to a restaurant and we sat down and I wrote his goals down for him because he was not into writing things down right there. We talked about what would be his goals for this summer and how he would get there. We came up with three goals. In the 200 fly he wanted to break the National Age Group record, which is 2:04.68. His goal was 2:04:60 and I didn’t want to argue too much about it so I said ok, 2:04.6 will be fine with me. He wanted to break the 400 IM record, which was 4:31.81, so we put that in and we worked out some splits and talked about what he might want to do. Our big goal was to break 16 minutes in the mile because I thought that would set him up for future development and that is what he needed to do. He needed to swim a good mile and so we put that down and we wrote all this on a sheet and he had it on his refrigerator all summer. He had his first shave at this meet and he was now just turned 14 and I felt like I didn’t want to go through the whole year and not give him every opportunity to swim fast. I wanted to see how he would swim fast shaved so we let him shave, although there were only about two hairs to shave. He made his first National cuts in all three of those events. Of course, I immediately took him to the Nationals in Minnesota which we all know is not the thing to do, but we all do it anyway so why did we waste $1,000 and a whole week of time so that he can go and be dead last in the 200 fly at Minnesota. I mean I was rationalizing it to say that well, he needed to go and be in that environment if he was going to swim in the Olympic trials possibly a year later. If I had to do it again, I would never have done that and he would have still been just as good in the spring.
Here is some of the work we were doing. The main set would be 12 300s backstroke on 5 minutes,1 kick, 1 drill, 1 swim. I only have three results because I didn’t write anything down so that means the first one was probably 3:30 or something. He likes to get into it slowly, but the last three swims were 3:14, 3:09 and 3:05 for 300 backstroke yards. Fairly decent swimming and then we came back and did a little speed work at the end of some 50s. This would be pretty typical of the work that he does, (did and does – to further develop a certain stroke). As a 13 year old in short course we got the Junior cuts in that 1:54.2, the 1:53.8 backstroke and the 4:03 IM was actually at the Juniors itself. He was slower in everything else at the Juniors. It was a fairly good first experience I guess. Here is where things sort of took off. His goal was 2:04.6. He went 2:04.68, a National Age Group record. That was a 20 year old record and that was the first one since he was 10 years old. I think it meant that our plan was maybe working, even though we were not seeing the results as an 11-12 year old. The 400 IM – he wanted to go 4:31, I believe 82 was the record – he went 4:31.84. He was ranked #1, but in the 200 fly at Juniors he was 3rd, in the 400 IM he was 2nd. He didn’t go under 16, he went 16:00 and that ended up being second at Juniors. Murray and I have a theory that we love for them to be second at Juniors because every kid that we have ever had that won Juniors never really went on. We kind of liked that, but he had clearly moved now from being just a hot shot age grouper who is bigger than everybody else at 10 to a swimmer who really worked on his strokes at 11&12, and now at 13-14 he was on his way. Those are pretty good times for a 14 year old. There are not too many boys at Nationals at 14, right?
The part that I love the most about this, and he doesn’t know I am going to tell this, and he probably doesn’t even know that I know this, but he swam that mile in the afternoon. He didn’t make the finals, I think he dropped from 16:36 to 16 minutes and he got out of the pool and he was really happy with himself, you could tell. He was still not all that big. He might have been 6 feet and weighed about 140lbs. He was wearing this postage stamp of a suit, like size14, you know a baby suit. They didn’t have any jammers then. He had his suit and his shoes on and he walked back across the parking lot to the hotel. He was in the hallway and he was going to go and fill up his water bottle with ice. This was right after his mile and I knew that he didn’t like swimming the mile. He really didn’t, but he did it because I encouraged him strongly to do so. He skips down the hallway because he was so happy with himself. I thought if I could just maintain this. If I could just keep that sort of purity and joy about his swimming then we would be in good shape and you know, he still has it today. If you saw his face after that World Record in Ft. Lauderdale it is the same as it was when he skipped down the hallway to get his ice in Orlando. I think that is a key component – he absolutely loves to swim. He loves to improve. He didn’t win the event, but it was the time he wanted to do. It wasn’t even really the goal time. It was a really good time – a National cut.
We took him straight from there to Minnesota and took 5 steps back and then we went home to regroup and got into some good training in preparation for the 2000 Spring Nationals. Michael’s training really started to take off in about December of this year and I started to think, boy he is really starting to make some significant progress. During this period I started to think to myself well maybe this thing is going a little faster that I had projected. We wanted to start assembling a team of people to help support him through this effort. We already had Fred and Debbie and we had Murray, myself and the people at Meadowbrook. We added a very key member of the team in Dr. Peter Rhodes, of Johns Hopkins University at this time that really helped us out with helping to keep Michael healthy. Making sure that things were operating properly from a health standpoint. I started to solicit the interest of some other people who would want to work with him, particularly physical therapist Scott Heinlein who without a doubt we would not have had the success we have had without him.
OK, we are in Seattle, he is swimming the 200 fly in the prelims. The first day of the meet; it is the last event and it is dead in there. I mean, there is nobody there. I remember standing there and looking up and seeing John Leonard sitting in the stands because there were only four people in the stands. So Murray and I are standing there and Michael dives into the water, his 200 fly prelim and it is dead silent and he hits the wall at 26.6. Spontaneously Murray and I both go Whoa! I was thinking boy, you would have a great meet if you went 2:01 or 2 – he was 1:59.6 in that morning swim which was not only 5 seconds off his own record for 13-14s, it was under the 15-16 record. That was really when things were never the same. Michael came out and we tried to do our usual that was pretty good, well maybe you can do a little better tonight. I had him warm down. Murray and I went to lunch at Mitzel’s. We ate there every day. We get a table and I had to walk to the baseball field to get the car and as I was walking out, I went through the lobby and something hit me so clearly that I would never forget that moment. He is going to be on the Olympic Team. I had never until that point ever even thought about it. It was so clear in my mind after seeing him do that that I really felt like I now had to start thinking about getting ready for what was coming up. He came back that night and went 1:59 flat and got third. The thing that I really liked about that swim was I thought he might kind of flip out and get nervous, but when they marched him out to swim he was up, had his feet on the blocks stretching. He did all his little gyrations, which he has done since he was 10, and which he did in the PAN-PACs. Every time he goes out to swim he does the same little routine. When I saw that I thought boy, he is really pretty comfortable in this environment and it worked out well so we were on our way. One of the things that we had to deal with during this whole time was Michael’s mother being a little over-exuberant about things. Quite frankly, it was Murray’s and my opinion that she didn’t really help her daughter do well in 1996 because she was too excited about things. If you remember, Whitney Phelps was the #1 American going into the trials and then just bombed at the trials and didn’t make it. That was a big deal for their family, but part of the deal was that Debbie was just so happy with what was going on. We get home from this meet and all over the front yard are American flags and stuff – red, white and blue – the whole place. Now, we weren’t the only people there so Michael went in and unpacked his stuff and I took all that stuff down. I got the call from Debbie and she said what did you do that for? I said, you know he went 1:59.6. I don’t think he was elected President or anything. We really tried to downplay his success so that there could be other steps to take. I think if you make such a big deal at the early steps, you are never going to get to the harder steps. What we agreed on was whenever he did a good swim at a meet, she could put a sign on his door that said “Great Job Michael” for 48 hours. I think she might still do that.
Obviously, the secret was out by then. We started getting a lot of attention about what we were doing which was nice to know that what you are doing is being recognized. It is not so nice because it really is sort of good to toil in obscurity and do your thing and not have to deal with some of these things. We were starting to get some media attention and people were starting to give us their expectations about what should happen so that was something that had to be dealt with. He came back home and swam really well. He went a 4:26 that spring which was a very good record I thought in the 500 free. It showed some good progress. The other things were ok. You know his mile could have been better. I think that was in December so all of his short course times were now unshaved. That was before the Spring Nationals. He did all of these unshaved in the meet before and actually did the 400 IM and the 200 fly I believe in Charlotte. Then we got into our trials preparation. We have our basic sort of “” warm up that we do all the time. Then we got into the main set, which is one of our personal favorites. Maybe I should say one of my personal favorites. That is 20 100s on 1:30, long course meters, 50 free builds and I think the rule on that one has got to be under 35 seconds. He climbs out and dives his 50 fly on the watch and then he starts again every 1:30. So when you do 30 of those, that is pretty good. He would average 28.5 on the dive 50s and his fastest was 27.8. This was indicative of the kind of fly work that we would do. He was really focused coming off that dive and did a great stroke. I felt he was able to get a feel for what the pain of racing was really like or actually the pain of controlling his stroke under stress. It wasn’t like a big rested up, muscled up thing where you can go fast and feel good. It was on short enough rest that he really had to use aerobic energy to hold his stroke. When he does a set like that, that would zonk him for maybe two or three days. If you try something like that, start with 20, I mean 30 is serious business and then we would do a typical swim down for us – maybe 8 300s with a pull buoy – the odd ones are free, the even ones are IM. He loves doing that. We added more butterfly going into this summer because we knew that the 200 fly was really his deal and he hadn’t done a lot of butterfly training. I thought that this was some stuff that really helped him and then we kind of got into long course.
For 13-14 year olds in May he swam 3:58 in the 400 at the Ann Arbor meet which was a National Age Group record. That was a really good swim for him and 1:55 in the 200. He was 15:39 in the long course rankings in the mile, which was really pretty average. We got the 200 breast finally right. In the 13-14 rankings #1 200 breaststroker after three years of trying to just get on the list. I think that showed that what we were doing all along maybe was good. It just took time and I think a lot of things take time to happen. I got home from the PAN-PACs and one of our assistant coaches said, you must have been doing a lot more speed work because that 100 fly was so good. I said no, I didn’t do anything different. He developed physically, mentally, and technically. What we were doing he just did better. This is a good example of staying with something even though it seems like it is not making progress. He couldn’t have an IM without breaststroke. I am not saying that he has one now, but we had to work on it. His first meet as a 15 year old he broke the NAG record in the 200 IM. I thought that was pretty good. We will get into the trials.
Mental preparation for the trials: One of the things that we did leading up to this was 30minutes once a week he would come in and he and I would discuss basically his life in general. More specifically how he would prepare mentally for the trials in terms of what it was going to be like. The kind of things he should focus on, and how he was going to handle the attention. Anita and I would write down a list of questions that he would definitely be asked and we made him memorize answers. Why are you so fast? What do you do special? And he got very good at that. We also had him doing a progressive relaxation technique that his mother read to him before he went to bed at night, to kind of keep her involved, you know, minimally involved, so she was part of the process. We worked on his schedule and I think this really helped him at the trials. It is something we do for every big meet and I am a big believer in rhythm. We decided that at the trials his schedule would be that he would have to be up at 7 in the morning. He would be in bed at 10 and for three weeks before the trials, he was up at 7 and in bed at 10. Two weeks before the trials he would get up and do his wake up swim which is take a shower so, up at 7, take a shower, come to morning practice and be in bed at 10. He never had a problem keeping or being on a schedule at the meet. It was up at 7, sleep at 10. Take a nap in the afternoon if he felt like it so I thought that was very important and really helped.
Training for the trials was much the same as he had been doing except we did a little more butterfly work because that was the event. We were not really trying to swim a big program. At the meet itself he dropped his best time three times, 58.6 in the prelims, 8.2 in the semis and 1:57.48 in the final The aftermath of that was that our world absolutely blew up about 10 seconds after that 1:57.48. Murray told me we were sitting in this meeting and they were discussing all the doctors that were available at the trials. There were like 100 health people and Murray turned to me and I will never forget it, he said you know, it is amazing how many people need to be involved once you get somebody to swim fast. It starts out with two and now it is 100. We learned that a lot of people would be involved in the process and then we moved on to the big meet.
The planning was that he was going to drop one second off his time from the trials. That would be a reasonable goal in 5 weeks I guess. In the training camp, I can’t say enough about how the Olympic Staff, namely Mark Schubert. Denny really allowed the access to Michael so that he could adjust to being in this environment. I was terrified of what would happen sending a kid who had just turned 15 to live with 21 and 22 year olds for six weeks because I knew that he hadn’t been exposed to anything in terms of what they might be interested in doing. The team did a great job of looking after him and the staff did a fantastic job of kind of keeping him straight. He did great training. I will mention one thing from Pasadena he did three 300 flys yards and the first one was I believe 2:58 and then he went 2:54 and 2:49 on the last one. I thought he was getting ready to swim well and we went to Brisbane and rested up and then he had this experience. A best time every time he swam. In the finals I got a call, he was supposed to be at the pool warming up and I got a call saying oh, I forget my credential. I gotta go back, they won’t let me in. I can tell you, no pressure here. The bottom line was we have a very structured warm up that is one hour and a half before the meet. He showed about an hour before so we just winged it and I figured if he could handle that and still do a good time. I mean he came in his usual self. That was good. He has learned how to deal with the situation and not let it control him.
Refocusing – this was important because I felt like Michael was just at the beginning of his career. The Olympics are the end of the career for a lot of people. So they are at a different phase. They want to finish swimming and then party. Michael was just starting so I wanted to refocus him so the day after his 200 fly final he got in and I think did a 400 just for symbolic reasons. The next day we started training in the training pool during the prelims. I had a little sheet of paper that I gave him the work out on. Everyday it would have a different meet that we were going to that winter and the World Record written under it so that was how we kind of got into our next goals.
As a 15-16 year old Michael was a pretty big boy now, swimming a lot more. We are doing three mornings per week during the winter and about the same during the summer. Doing a little more dry land. This would let you know what kind of work he did after that. In December 2001, 2,000 timed kick free 23:02 and in his 500s you could see he descended 48, 47, 46, 5:39. We really think kicking is important. This was after a 9,000 yard work out in the morning so this was a pretty good load of work. Then we did something, just to show you that we could do it. He did 200s; these are the only 200 flys he did before setting the World Record in training, the whole season, and they were pulling, (2:01, 2 minutes, 1:59, 1:57.5 and 1:56.4 on the end of that). So we are really into the kicking and pulling. I think that is important and I think he has made a big commitment to improving those areas. We did these short course times. Another National Age Group record 1:45 unshaved in January and then we got to the meet and things took off a little bit. He made a breakthrough in his IMs; he was 4:15, 2:02 to be third in both of those and then the first World Record came somewhat by surprise I would think. He did it by changing his strategy slightly. During the whole Olympic process he had been very much into a totally relaxed, drop out of it and then kill them the last 50. Before he did this one I said you know Michael, you are going to be on the World Championship Team unless you break an arm so why don’t you just challenge yourself in the middle two 50s and see what happens. That is what he did. He was much closer to Tom in the middle 50s and then of course he got excited and put his last 50 on there and it was 1:54.92. He qualified for the World Championship Team. That summer he did a very good job in the IM’s. I think it was interesting that he totally changed tactics. In the prelims he swam a beautiful 1:56.1, very easy, super easy, and then he came back in the semi-finals and he sort of struggled to go 1:56.6. He won his heat, but he dropped behind. It was just wasn’t right. He got out and watched Tom and the French guy go 155:03, right off his record and he was absolutely out of control. I met him in the warm up pool and he pitched a temper tantrum and I understood it, but I didn’t think there was anything he could about it then. I tried to calm him down, let him warm down and he stayed upset. We got to the hotel and finally he had just reached the point where I said, I am not dealing with you any more. I said, get up in the morning, swim in the warm down pool and the whirlpool at the hotel, and be at the team meeting on time. I don’t want to hear anymore about your angst, ok? And I didn’t see him all day. I went to the pool and came back. In the team meeting he is in there and I could just tell he was dying to talk me so I came in dead last so I couldn’t talk to him before the team meeting. We had the meeting and I was the first one out the door. I was going to the pool and he was like, Bob, Bob, Bob – he was running down the hall to get me and I was like, yes? And he said “should I take it out”? I said hell yes and walked off and went to the pool. That was our strategy session. I think sometimes that they have to live with themselves a little bit. You can’t make everything perfect. We had a little situation at the Olympics and I just totally backed off of it. I didn’t want to say this is the Olympics and you need to have your suit tied and don’t swim with the strings hanging out and your suit falling down. I just said ok that you are doing well, ok let’s keep going. You have to treat them like a swimmer and they have to live with some discomfort sometimes. It makes them grow and that is what we are trying to do, get them to grow as people. That was a huge breakthrough and then of course he was first at the wall and set the record again. He came back and went to Clovis and won the 100 fly in 52.9 and the 200 IM, 2:00 and a second in the 200 back at 2:00. So we made some progress in other events and at this point he decided to be professional. My take on that is this – for about 99.9% of the swimmers I think college is the next logical step for their swimming career. When you have already set 2 World Records and you are looking at doing things no one has done before you are going to need some other opportunities that may not be afforded in the NCAA program. I don’t think that it would have been good for Michael to swim the NCAA short course and come back and swim in this meet to try and make the World Championship team. That is a tough deal so when he looked at the opportunities that were available and we spent a year doing it, it was a no-brainer. I mean, we did talk most of the time about what he was giving up, but the things that he was getting in return in terms of being able to pursue swimming long course meters on this level I think outweighed the other concerns. There is the World Record, that 2 minute IM I thought was really good. When we got into this year and our total focus was on Ft. Lauderdale. Everything we did this year, from the end of the Clovis Nationals until now was on that meet. I pretended like the PAN-PACS wasn’t there. Why? Because even though we know the conditions in Ft. Lauderdale were not ideal, we knew what they were and I wanted to have at least one good meet, hopefully two. I didn’t know what the conditions in the PAN-PACS were going to be and I wasn’t really wild about him swimming five days of events, traveling for a week to the other side of the world and then doing another six days of events. We really tried to do everything in Ft. Lauderdale and he did. He posted the times that he needed to post and overall it was reasonably good. He stayed for our sectional short course meet for several reasons. He never gets a chance to swim fast short course and I think that is a big part of our swimming history and I am sorry that we do not have a major short course meet every year. We shaved for our short course sectionals with good results. He was 142.0 in the 200 fly which was the second fastest ever, 41.8 was the record; 4:18 in the 500 which broke Kostov’s very old record in the 500 and then 3:42 flat in the 400 IM. Pretty good so that is what we did.
We took very little rest and we were right back into training because Ft. Lauderdale is what we were after. We did an altitude camp for three weeks in Colorado Springs and I thought he got a lot out of it. I thought everybody did. I don’t know if they got a lot out of the altitude or if they got a lot out of focusing on swimming. I don’t think they got a lot out of being in that dorm for three weeks, but the other stuff kind of took care of it. We saw a lot of movies. We went to the Janet Evans meet and he was second in the 400 IM to Eric Vent in what was one of the best races I have ever seen until Ft Lauderdale. He really got a chance to race hard on the level that he would need to race in the Nationals and in the future. That is something that is very hard to get him to do, just because it is hard for him to find opportunities. I thought that meet really represented a big step forward for him to go 4:14.1 to Eric’s 13.9 and he actually was coming back on him at the end which was good. Here is one of our Colorado Springs sets. It is a 3,000 series. They did a 25 single arm fly, a 25 two right two left and two both, a 25 side kick which would be with one arm out and then a 25 swim and then they did a four 50s – a 50 of each, a 75, a 100 and if you do that three times that is 3,000 and you go straight through it. He was swimming very fast on the swims. I was kind of monitoring this even though he was going straight and he was under a minute meters all the time. His last 100 of that straight for 3,000 was 56.6 at altitude. I thought he was really getting in good shape and then at the end we did a little speed set where they did four 50s free on 45, four 50s fly drill and then we time trailed the 100 in two groups. I think I had enough people that one group would go and then I would do the other one. We repeated that for four rounds. His 100s were pretty good, 7.9. 7.1, 55.6, 54.7 in the last one, so I knew he was ready to swim well. I am hoping that it was going to carry over into the next season because he did not have a tremendous 200 fly that summer. Maybe we trained so much we took away from it. The American Record in the 200 IM, probably his best swim. He added a good 200 free which was something we had really been working on and you know he had a good 200 fly swim. It was a very hard race, good swim, no best time, but I think he was in a pretty tough program during this. He did swim 11 times in 5 days, which I think is the way he is going to be swimming now. It’s not so easy to get ready for 11 swims. In the World Championships he will be doing the same and hopefully the next year he will be doing the same. So now we are into the mode where he is actually reaching his potential in terms of event program.
The 400IM in Ft. Lauderdale is probably the greatest race I have ever seen. I cannot give enough credit to Eric Vent for a courageous swim. I think Michael really showed what he is made of on the last lap. I think it also showed him what needs to happen in the future, so it was just very good for everybody involved.
Going to the PAN-PACS we figured we would just be in a plane for 24 hours and then try another meet. He broke the meet record in the 400IM twice in Japan. It was tough on all of those guys in Japan adjusting to the time. His 200 fly was a great race for him. I was very happy with how he raced. I was very happy for Tom Wilkens. Michael went out to hard. You know now that you are successful being first at the 50, now he just wants to keep doing that and he just didn’t have much gas in the tank after doing the IM twice. He fought hard. He got real tired the third 50. He came back and it was just a tremendous race. I give Tom all the credit in the world for really swimming a fantastic race and I think Michael gained a lot from that. His 200 IM – he came back and did really well. One of the things that you will notice is that the people who swam the best over there were the ones who were trying to make the World Championship Team, because they were swimming with emotion, or the people on the relays. I don’t think the problem was so much physical energy as it was emotional for some of the people like Michael who had a super meet in Ft. Lauderdale. It was very hard to come back and generate that kind of emotion to swim again in this environment, with the travel. His 800 free relay split I was so proud of; 1:47.49 and the relay broke the American Record. He actually passed the Australian guy and had a lead going in which is the first time in six years we have ever been ahead of those guys. That was good for him to be a part of that and hopefully we can all work on that and turn the tables on them next summer. The medley relay ended the meet with a bang and this was right after the IM. I think he had about 40 minutes, but he swam the IM and just continued to swim down and threw in the 51:1 which – the fastest split ever before that is 51:49. I think he ended up with a pretty good summer. Nine swims in 5 days. Those relays were the first time he has ever been in a relay and he survived the relay start nervousness and all that kind of thing. They weren’t particularly fast, but we have some things to work on and now we are looking ahead.
I think one of the things that we wanted to achieve for Michael is something that he already does. He swims amazingly well in terms of consistency, but he needs to do it a little bit better in terms of day to day to day in these big programs. That is something we are really working on. If he is going to do one of these things where he swims four individual events and maybe two or three relays, which I am not sure is even in the cards, we are going to have to be working towards a peak of mental energy. Concentration is his thing. He needs to be able to manage his levels of energy and excitement throughout this eight-day period so that he can be really fast when he needs to be really fast. He can recover and hopefully move to a new level of performance. He handles things better. He sees the world from a different viewpoint and it really has just been a pleasure watching him grow in this area because a lot of the things that we worked hard on when he was younger he is now seeing really helped. It is really rewarding to see that he feels good about the program and how it is going.
I would like to do right now is bring Michael up and open it up for questions for either he or I. How do we manage the needs of the rest of the swimmers in addition to Michael? One of the benefits that all of our swimmers have is being around Michael and one of the benefits he has is being around them. The program that Michael has followed with very rare exceptions has been our normal program. So, you know there are sometimes if we are on a really fast interval he gets his own lane. If they complain I say make the interval and go over there. In general, he does our normal program and one of the things I am most proud about is that we qualified 8 new people for the Nationals this summer out of that training group. We had 14. Two years ago we had one so I think that he is actually creating excitement and helping our young guys really get excited about swimming on this level. Hopefully we will have some more people moving up to the world stage soon. That would be our goal.
How did Michael handle it when he was a very young age group hot shot swimmer and other people were jealous? How did he handle the dynamic of relating to the other people on the team because he was so much more advanced and is now. I think, to tell you the truth, I don’t know if anyone really got jealous or anything or they didn’t show it at all. I don’t think anyone acted any different towards me or we didn’t do anything differently. We went in and we all had goals and we worked towards those goals, like the personal goals that we set for ourselves. I think having all that in mind helped and I don’t think very many people got jealous. I will answer that from my perspective. I would agree with what Michael said. Michael has always just been Michael. Like I said, he is the little guy that was dunking people in the pool and he just happened to always swim well, so he has always just been that and they don’t know any different. The other thing from our standpoint, thanks to Murray, is that it seems in my mind that a lot of times in my experience the parents are the ones who propagate this stuff, not the swimmers. We have a little different relationship with the parents in our Club because we own the pool and we own the team. If they want to be on it, they need to enjoy our philosophy or they can enjoy somebody else’s. That is sort of how we run things.
The question is about kicking and pulling and mainly kicking – about how much of the kicking would be done with the board. I would say a lot – 80%, 75%. Why? Because I can talk to them while they are doing it and we can really motivate them. I know he enjoys that part. I think you can get a lot of body position work, maybe some conditioning when their head is in the water, but is just never as intense as when they are on a board. He does most of his kicking on a board. I have 22 people in the group and we do not ever kick slower than 130/100. We do that because we work on it and nobody gets to slack off and be under water and play around. We do some of the kicking in four positions or kicking on a back or side, but in general, it is done on a board. The question is about what is our dry land program and do we have a quadrennial or a long-term plan with that? Yes, that’s what we started them off with. We do not do any weight training or we have not to this point. The reason being that we feel like the swimming is most important and weight training, besides changing you physically and killing endurance by the way, hurts them so that they cannot swim fast in practice. Our people swim fast in practice every day. On a different level, I would say that what we have tried to do with Michael is we started with basic conditioning work, running, just a general athletic, trying to make him a better athlete, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and we moved up gradually the number of reps, the number of expectations. We added ply metric jumping. We spend 45 minutes to an hour on dry land everyday. We do not do the conventional weight training. This summer we did the best thing we have ever done. I did verbatim the Mike Barrowman Medicine Ball Program – one hour and that is the best stretching, core body strength and in my mind, muscle endurance work – you can ask him, how did you like that one? “It was one of the hardest dry land things I think I have ever done. I mean, it is continuous. It is a straight hour, pretty much no stopping or only maybe 10 or 15 seconds to get a drink of water. That is about it so it is pretty strenuous exercising and it definitely hurts, I will say that.” I think that he may add spring training later in a more formal way, but right now I think he is going good with what he has got. When he plateaus maybe sometime we will add that. Yes, Josh – I do for him. Yeah, I really do, I think it is, underwater swimming is becoming a 5th stroke and it is so powerful, particularly if you have somebody like Michael who does it well that you have to do it. One of the things that you will notice here is that everybody liked that last freestyle wall – we are working on that. We also worked on coming from breaststroke and doing it under water the first hopefully 12 meters of freestyle. We call that the equalizer or the secret weapon. After breaststroke where you equalize what he lost on that little bit. Hopefully he hits the wall first on breast so he is dolphin kicking while the other people are breaststroking. Yes, personally I think it was very hard for him watching two people break his world record. You know, after the race, he did come up to me and congratulate me and you know I respect that very much and I think having someone like him in our sport it is unbelievable. He has been dominating the IM for the past eight years so I mean, he was definitely very gracious about everything and he did come up and congratulate me.
Yes, I am a regular high school student pretty much. Schools work with me to allow me to have more time swimming like I think this year I am taking the basic requirements to graduate. I am taking a year of English and a half-year of economics so they are giving more time to train. The past few years they have allowed me to come in at 8:45 and have the first period free so I can go longer after morning practice and I can relax and go to school right after that. I think that one of the things that I should clarify when I say isolate is that you know, Michael goes to dances. He hangs out with his friends, but he doesn’t do it every Friday. You know, I mean he has all of the social activity that the, hopefully not all, but most of the social activities that a high school student has, but just in a lesser amount. He has to balance that out more than his friends do.
In preparation for the trials Michael had some shoulder issues which we all have and we went through a guy named Scott Heimlein who was really instrumental in this shoulder study that is on the web now, USA Swimming, you should check out the rehab program. I am going to give you one example of Michael. Michael very rarely has problems, but he just has a little nagging growth related issues, but when you go to see Scott they do something called manual therapy which was developed in Australia and it is as much neuromuscular as it is bones so when you go in, Scott will take you and he might say okay, they are going to do something like this and the next thing you know somebody who couldn’t pick their arm up is going like this, it is unbelievable. Michael dove into practice one day and it was near the end of the season and he dove in and took just a stroke and he said I cannot move my right arm. It was a little bit distressing to me so I said well you just get out, I will call Scott. I called Scott – we have to see you right now. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. I left practice with my assistant and we went to Scott. Scott looked at him and said well, the clavicle has been pushed up because his top rib has been pushed up out of place so every time he lifts his arm he is cranking on this tendon and he fixed it like that. We would have been doing ice and Advil for two months trying to deal with that and he missed no training. He has not missed a day of training for four or five years, since I have been coaching him he hasn’t missed a day of training unless I kicked him out and that was like half a practice. He has not willfully missed or because of illness or injury and Scott is a big part of that. I really think you should look into this manual therapy and try to find people in your community. The other thing about Scott is he really works with me. When Michael first started going to him he would say stuff like well only swim 1700 meters today. I would be like you are not doing that you are doing whatever I say. I could crush him in 1700 meters if I wanted to or he could swim 8000 easy. Murray and I have really worked with Scott. He has learned about swimming and now he can put what he does best into the context of what we need and I think that is very important that you find people like that.
What has it meant for the age group program to have Michael on the team in terms of young boys? For us I think it has been very important to have him as a role model. We had already taken steps before Michael really came onto the scene. He was always there, but we started an all boys group for our basically 9-11 year olds three or four years ago. That was Murray’s idea and it just worked fantastically. We brought a big group of boys in that have now stayed with our program so I think a big part of it is socialization and how the boys are handled. Michael I think has been a great role model for the young boys on our team, would you agree with that? You know I think Bob is definitely right. Last year a few times I talked with the guys when they were getting into the water and we were getting out of the water. I will just joke with this one little guy and we are always joking about freestyle. He says he wants to race me. We get in the water and he races, he is 9 by the way, so we decided to give it a little shot and I think we gave him maybe a 12 ½ to 13 yard advantage. Michael was really generous. I was going to say wait until he gets to the flags and of course Michael dives in and he is half way down the pool. I definitely had to just joke around with the guys like that so I think we are all pretty close. I think it makes them see swimming in a different light. They could really do some things in swimming that maybe they only get in the other sports at school in terms of performance.
What was going through Michael’s mind the last hundred of the IM in Ft. Lauderdale? I knew Vent was coming on strong in the breaststroke leg. I knew I had to be well ahead of him going into the breaststroke so I think just turning and seeing him coming up with 150 to go and I was getting a little scared. Going into the last wall seeing him we were pretty much even I knew I had to do something to really pull ahead and that is when I really whipped out the – like Bob would say – the big secret weapon and really gave it everything on that underwater.
What do you think of Junior Nationals? I guess it was good for me to have a meet like that. I guess it was a little pre-step to Nationals. Do you think it was different than the Sectionals? I don’t really find it different from Sectionals at all. There are more people there so I mean I think that is a plus when you get to race more and more people. Other than that I think that Juniors and Sectionals are pretty much similar meets. I mean I think in my mind – meets are there and you can use them any way you want to. We like the sectional format just because it is a little less emphasis and people don’t think they have quite achieved such a super level as Nationals – Juniors, ok? And our program notices a lot more people have made the national cuts because of it, but our sectional meet is faster than Juniors for the most part. The competition level is actually higher that is why we like it better.