Earlier this month, the Phelps family gathered around the TV. Michael stood behind the sofa. Wife Nicole was there. Their boys — Boomer, 3, and Beckett, 2, and perhaps 7-month-old Maverick, if he wasn’t sleeping. So was Michael’s father-in-law, who lives with the family. Even longtime coach Bob Bowman, or grandpa, as the boys call him.
“It was surreal,” Bowman said. “He even called Debbie on Skype or whatever.”
Debbie, Phelps’ mom, was conferenced in on a laptop, sitting atop the coffee table.
The occasion: to watch Phelps’ races from the Olympics that reaired as part of NBCSN’s Olympic Games Week. In particular, it was the first time he and Bowman watched his eight Beijing Olympic gold-medal finals in full together. (They previously watched some of the highlights hours after the eighth gold medal in a sitdown with Bob Costas for NBC primetime.)
“The two of us, our minds together, talking about breakouts and technique and all of it,” Phelps said in a phone interview Tuesday while promoting his new association with Silk Soymilk.
Bowman was Phelps’ career-long coach, through the 28 Olympic medals (23 golds), the well-documented lows and his newer roles as husband and father. On that night earlier this month, nothing on the screen could have surprised him.
Bowman watched. He paused every two minutes to raise a pillow, take Boomer’s toll money and let the boy push his truck through the living space. And he was reminded of Phelps’ encyclopedic memory.
“It wasn’t just Beijing. It was London. It was all of them,” Bowman said. “Like in the 200m IM in Beijing. I felt like his turn from back to breast, he really slowed down going into that wall, even though he was in the lead. He was like, yeah, I did that so I could touch on my right hand so I could look over and see where [eventual silver medalist] Laszlo [Cseh] was going into that wall.”
Watching another race, Phelps forecast that he would come off a turn and, about halfway down, peer around to make sure the other swimmers were where he wanted them to be.
“Then you see him look over,” Bowman said.
Phelps wasn’t particularly excited to watch the races he lost in London — fourth in the 400m individual medley and silver to Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly.
“I’m happy they didn’t show all of the races from London,” he joked of the Games for which he didn’t train properly, skipping out on practices and butting heads with Bowman (more than usual). “Or maybe I missed the 200m fly because I was putting the kids down. It’s still painful for me to watch that because I know I’ve seen it enough that if I would have hit any of the turns right, then I win the race. And that’s still frustrating to me to watch.
“It brought back a lot of raw emotions that probably hadn’t been addressed or really thought about in-depth. That made it a little bit more challenging being in quarantine.”
Oh, the 200m butterfly in 2012.
“It’s hard to believe he doesn’t win, right?” Bowman said. “He just misjudges the last wall, which messes up his kicks, which messes up his stroke count, which messes up the finish. Basically, that’s it. It’s not like he gets demolished, right? He didn’t get beat by a body length. It was he just mistimed the touch. It was the opposite of the 100m fly from Beijing.”
The one race from Beijing that Bowman watches frequently is the 200m butterfly. He uses it in talks. That’s where Phelps won despite his goggles filling with water, but he only broke his world record by .06.
“My favorite thing is he’ll touch, and it’s a gold medal, it’s a world record, and he looks like the most unhappy guy,” Bowman said. “It looks like he got eighth. He throws his goggles off. I remember, after that race, he actually came over to the side of the pool. I was standing there on his way to the mixed zone, and he just looks over and just kind of goes off in this tirade. My goggles filled up. I couldn’t see. I just remember saying, gold medal, world record, let’s just smile and move on to the next one.”
Boomer and Beckett have grown immune to their dad being on TV, Bowman said. They did get together on the coffee table at one point to do the trademark Phelps back slaps. All the while, dad was taking a trip down memory lane.
“It was kind of cool because I could almost just really put myself back into that exact moment,” Phelps said. “I can go back through history and really put myself in that pool, in that race again, pretty much know exactly what I was thinking every stroke.”
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