Michael Phelps on meeting Usain Bolt, swimming with sharks and more

Leave a comment

NEW YORK — Michael Phelps discussed his first meeting with Usain Bolt, filming for Shark Week and, of course, comeback questions while promoting a new sponsor Tuesday.

Phelps, in Manhattan to promote Colgate’s #EveryDropCounts water-conservation campaign, sat down with OlympicTalk during a hectic day of media appearances.

Here’s a portion of the Q&A:

OlympicTalk: We saw you on the broadcast of the Mesa meet last weekend. We always think of that as your comeback meet (2014, 2016). I’m not asking you about a comeback, but how did it feel to be watching on the deck?

Phelps: We joked basically the whole time about it being the only time where Mesa isn’t a comeback meet. It was cool being there and seeing some of the people, being able to catch up with Katie [Ledecky], Simone [Manuel], Leah [Smith] and Nathan [Adrian], who I was on the team with this past summer. Obviously watching Chase [Kalisz] very closely. I always will be, just because he’s like a little brother to me.

It’s different now for me being on deck and watching compared to four years ago because I felt like I had the itch a little bit then, when I first retired. Now, I’m just like, yeah, I don’t miss it. I don’t miss getting in and warming up and being freezing when you get out of the pool or sitting at a meet for five or six hours a day. That’s not going to happen anymore.

I think I might be going to [training] camp for a few days with [longtime coach] Bob [Bowman] to help out, a camp in Colorado [Springs].

OlympicTalk: So it’s going to be a little bit of coaching. I thought you swore off being a Bob-type coach?

Phelps: I won’t be a Bob-type coach, ever. But there are certain things, like I know what Chase needs to do to be able to get to a 4:05 range [in the 400m individual medley]. I know what he can do to get to a 1:53, 1:54 range in the 200m ‘fly, too. That’s really what it is. Looking at stroke is basically what I’m doing for Bob [as a volunteer assistant coach] at ASU [Arizona State University].

He’ll send me videos, and I just watch videos. I can’t break it down to the other athletes, but I can break it down to [Bowman], and then he can break it down. I have a really hard time explaining how to fix everything. Some people don’t get what I’m saying, so I don’t even try. I just tell Bob, and he breaks it down. It’s fun.

OlympicTalk: You met Usain Bolt for the first time at the Laureus Awards in Monaco in February. What did you talk about?

Phelps: We landed at the airport at the same time, and we were both walking through security. I was like, oh nice, we’ve only competed in the last three Olympics together, and this is the first time we’re saying hello. We just kind of joked about it. It was pretty small talk, nothing really major. I was going to get a picture with him, but we didn’t even get a photo. We were just kind of both doing our own thing. Obviously, it’s cool watching somebody like him and watching what he does. Then you see him up close and personal. His legs are massive. He looks like a horse. So tall.

He was coming through security, and I was getting my stuff and putting it back in my bag. He walked through, we said hello, and we went separate ways. The next night we were together again [at bordering tables at the Laureus Awards], and we left.

Over the span of three Olympic Games, you’re with this guy, and you never meet him. It’s like, we were the big stories of the Games, and we never had the chance to meet until now. It’s just kind of bizarre. I never saw him once in any of the [Olympic] villages that we’ve ever had. I never saw him. We just had different schedules. He was [competing] in the second week. I was in the first.

MORE: Phelps on comeback: ‘We’ll see if I have that itch again’

OlympicTalk: Will you be at the world championships [in Budapest in July]?

Phelps: I’d like to go to the major meets. I think it would be cool for me to head there again. I wonder how the feeling would be at a meet like that. I know, in 2013, when I was at the worlds in Barcelona [while retired]. Going there and watching the [4x100m freestyle] relay, I was like, this is a joke. I can get up right now and swim faster than that

[Editor’s Note: The U.S. 4x100m led after three of four legs, but anchor Jimmy Feigen was very slow, and France edged the U.S. for gold]

So it’ll be interesting if I do go, just to see what the feeling will be. If we do go, Boomer and Nicole will probably go, and we’ll make it a trip. I’m waiting for the time where my son finally asks me why I’m not swimming anymore.

OlympicTalk: Shark Week. What can you tell me about that filming trip?

Phelps: I swam with five different breeds of shark. Some were up close and personal. Some were in a cage. Some were not in a cage. The biggest one was 13 feet. It was wild. Just being able to be in the water, and I’m such a shark fan, and being able to see these creatures up close and personal, it changes your perspective on them.

They have this bad rap, where all they want to do is eat, eat, eat. No, it’s really not that. As long as you’re not flailing around, and you’re watching where they are, watching what they’re doing. I was told to just make sure you always keep eye contact. Literally, I was standing there, and they were swimming past me. Normally, I would freak out, but it was so cool. It was something that was on my bucket list. The next part now is I want to dive with great whites. Those are my next sharks that I want to do.

OlympicTalk: We see you playing a lot of golf again now. Where’s your golf game now compared to in retirement four years ago?

Phelps: I can play and understand everything. Now, the chipping and putting aren’t very good, but I’m hitting the ball a lot straighter, a lot farther, but it’s chipping and putting. My lowest round is 83, and I double bogeyed two par-5s and had two three-putts. So I could shoot 78 off of that, really. If I could break 80, I’d be stoked.

We play a lot more. Nicole will get out and play some with me as well. It’s just, I have to actually go and practice. I now am fully realizing this. But it’s tough. We try to get out twice a week at least, but we’re traveling, and it’s hard with making sure we have a nanny.

OlympicTalk: You have a big sponsorship portfolio, why is Colgate’s initiative important to you?

Phelps: Every partner has always fit into my life and what I think about, what I want. Everything fits. Nothing is ever forced into anything we do. When you think about a stat like, if you leave your water running for two minutes while you’re brushing your teeth, you can waste up to four gallons of water. That’s ridiculous. I’ve been in water or around water all my life. It’s something we can all work on together and save this drinking water that we’re wasting daily.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Dana Vollmer races at swim meet, 26 weeks pregnant

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension

Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Seb Coe: Track and field needs more U.S. meets