Years of dedicated training brought him a record-breaking Olympic haul in London in 2012 — but now it’s all over. Michael Phelps tells MF about what’s next for him.
By Nick Hutchings, Joel Snape and Sam Dehority
Michael Phelps is fidgeting. A crowd of reporters swarms around him as he stands beneath the hoop of an indoor basketball court at Chelsea Piers in New York City. They pepper him with questions amid the constant strobe of camera flashes, hoping to catch the champ’s attention. They’re all asking variations of the same question: “What’s next?” He’s been here before, and carries himself with the practiced grace of a man who’s carried a flag, and a country’s hopes, on his shoulders. But, “what’s next” clearly isn’t his concern.
What’s lost in the shuffle is his hands — hard to believe when you realise how enormous they are. They’re constantly moving; he’s wringing them out, playing with the straw in his iced coffee and checking his phone in ceaseless rotation. Michael Phelps has ADHD. This is not news, but seeing it in person is eye-opening. As a child, his mother, Debbie, would ensure every moment was scheduled with an activity to keep him focused: Schoolwork, meals and training kept him constantly engaged. “I was always the kid who was running around,” he says. “I literally couldn’t sit still.”
Phelps’ hometown of Towson, Maryland, has long been a hotbed for sporting talent, spawning gridiron greats such as Don Shula and Johnny Unitas. Phelps’ dad was a star on the Fairmont State University football team in West Virginia, but the son never took to football. “My sisters and I, the decision was kind of left to us when it came to what we wanted to do,” he says. “I played baseball, lacrosse, soccer and I swam. The biggest sport was definitely lacrosse.” But when Phelps captured his first US record in the 100m butterfly in 1996 — a national record that stood until July 2012 — the path suddenly became clear. He began working with coach Bob Bowman soon after anda legendary union was born.
“He was the kid that never stopped talking, always had a ton of energy,” Bowman, 47, says. “But when he was swimming I never noticed that he was different [from the other swimmers] in terms of his focus or anything. It was probably the energy it took to swim, the environment of being in the water, and the fact there weren’t any prolonged breaks once he got in.
I’ve never thought, ‘Wow, this kid has ADHD; he can’t do this.’ I think that’s because swimming was a really good fit for him.”
It’s a sentiment the athlete himself acknowledges. “Being able to get in the water, I felt more relaxed,” Phelps says. “The more time I spent in the pool, the more relaxed I found myself. It was something that was exciting and challenging, so I decided to stick with it.”
“Sticking with it” brought the 27-year-old 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay), the World Swimmer of the Year award seven times, and 22 Olympic swimming medals, 18 of them gold, at four Olympics (2000-2012).
Now it’s all over. For most sportsmen, the question of what to do is one of the toughest they’ll ever face. Settle into the cosy circuit of endorsements and motivational speaking? Marry a former soap star? Maybe reverse the retirement and take one last run at glory?
It’s a difficult decision, made even more so by the fact that they’ll never again get to do the thing they’re best at — certainly the thing they’ve spent the most time on, and maybe the thing they love the most — at a competitive level.
For Phelps, who has spent more than 20 hours a week in the pool ever since he was in his teens, it’s equally tough, but for different reasons. After retiring at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of his sport, the question isn’t what to do now — it’s what to do first.
“We always joked about me getting super-huge and ripped,” says Phelps. “At the moment I’m doing some squats and weighted pull-ups, but I’m going to try to do some more bench pressing. I’ve done more in the last few months than I’ve ever done after an Olympics. After 2004 I took a month or two off, after 2008 I worked out five times in six months. After London, I worked out five times in two weeks. It’s the spot I want to hit and stay at.”
And pushing up his bench numbers isn’t the only addition to his workout regimen. “I’m running a lot more. I enjoy being outside, just putting on headphones and choosing where you want to go and running at your own pace. Since London, it’s been varying between 3km and 12km, anywhere from 12 minutes to an hour.”
The obvious question: does he have any ambitions about racing? He’d be a monster in a sprint-distance triathlon. “Ha! No,” he says. ‘I want to try some of the other Insanity-type workouts [a DVD workout released by the makers of “muscle-confusion” workout P90X], to see what that hype’s about. My trainer Keenan Robinson’s done that.’
If it seems odd to hear one of the most successful athletes in history talk about wanting to stay in shape, even talking about trying an infomercial-based fitness DVD, it really shouldn’t. Thanks to taking up swimming at seven, making the Olympic squad at 15 and breaking his first world record eight months later (in the 200m butterfly, three months short of his 16th birthday), Phelps has never had to worry about putting on a bit of weight. Take his infamous 12,000 calorie-a-day diet, which supposedly involved fried-egg-and-mayonnaise sandwiches for breakfast. Surely even an Olympian needs to watch what he eats?
“When I was swimming, no. Now I’m retired, yes. I was burning so much that it didn’t matter whatI ate or how much.”
He trained, he says, for roughly five hours a day in the pool. He also spent three hours a week in the weights room and three doing core or bodyweight exercises.
“Staring at the black line might get old, but it’s part of life,” he says. “It’s something we all love and that’s why we do it.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Phelps and his US team-mates didn’t try to liven things up occasionally. And the abolition of the streamlined swimsuits that saw dozens of world records fall in Beijing led to one interesting addition to the hours in the water. “I did a lot of boxing,” says Phelps. “Leading up to the 2012 Olympics we did so much training that we did different routines just to keep things interesting. And since the sport changed into what it is now, where we’re not allowed the suits, you have to have a stronger core. Boxing helps you put everything together and work that core.”
Does he still do it? Not so much. “I always enjoy new things when I start doing them, and then I get sick of them,” he says. “So I used to love lifting weights and then I hated weights and now I’m just, “Ehh”.
I don’t mind weights, but they’re not my top choice.
“I used to love boxing, but then I was over it by the end. So I started pushing a weighted sled down a beach, this makeshift shopping-cart-turned-sled thing. I was doing a lot of training in a sort of old-school, Rocky-esque gym. Nothing flashy, but we went in and got the job done.”
Another man trying to get the job done was Phelps’s team-mate and rival Ryan Lochte, 28, who went to London looking to add to his two golds from Beijing (he went on to win two gold and three silver, taking his total Olympic haul to 11 medals). The US media seemed keen to stoke up the rivalry between the two men and, in some ways, the frat-boyish Lochte (who has his own line of sneakers, a workout DVD called Hard-CORE, has trademarked his signature expression “Jeah” and post-retirement ambitions to be a fashion designer) is Phelps’ opposite, but the two are apparently good mates.
So did Phelps find the rivalry motivating? You get the sense that he’s tired of being asked the question. “It’s always great to have somebody to race, somebody to compete with,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I’m preparing for the goals that I want to achieve and I can only control myself. So I can only try to achieve those goals and if I manage them, I’m happy. I’m satisfied.”
Another thing he’s looking forward to is acting as a mentor for the younger members of the US team. “We’ve seen a lot of people grow up on the national swim team. They’re coming in to replace some of the guys who are retiring. We’re going to lose a lot of great people over the next couple of years and we’ve got some great people coming through who can continue our national success. I’ve been on the team for 12 years and we always seem to come out on top. It’s been great to see the rookies grow up.”
One thing he’s adamant about, however, is that he won’t be taking on any kind of coaching role. In fact, he laughs at the question. “I couldn’t coach. I don’t have the patience,” he says. “I can help people along the way, but I couldn’t see myself doing what Bob [Bowman, who has coached Phelps since he was a teen] does. I couldn’t see myself coping with some of the frustrations I’ve put Bob through.”
There are other projects too, of course. After Beijing, Phelps used his $1 million bonus cheque from Speedo — awarded for beating Mark Spitz’s single-Olympics gold medal tally — to set up the Michael Phelps Foundation, an organisation dedicated to promoting swimming and healthier lifestyles among teens. Then there’s his involvement in the Caps For A Cause charity and his swim schools, plus the foundation’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Michael Phelps Golf Classic, something that meshes particularly neatly with another of Phelps’ serious interests.
“Now I’m retired and done, I’ve started picking up golf,” he says. “And I think I’m more comfortable standing on a starting block in Speedos in front of millions of people than I am standing on the first tee at a pro-am golf event. It’s so different. On the blocks I’m in my own zone.
At that point you just get up and do what you have to do, it’s such a part of your nature.”
However, the man who broke 39 world swimming marks has already transferred his record-setting ways to the green on one occasion, at the Dunhill Links Championship at Kingsbarns in Scotland.
“I holed a 53-yard [48.5m] putt — supposedly the longest televised putt in history,” he says, before downplaying any notions that he’s going to be competing in the Ryder Cup any time soon. “Golf is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. It’s going to be an exciting career, but I don’t see myself being professional, I just see being competitive. Right now I’ve just been travelling around. I’m filming a golf reality show with Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ old coach. Golf is a sport I’ve been interested in for a long time, but I’ve been too busy to get involved.”
On a break
Finally, there’s the stuff Phelps simply couldn’t do before, for fear of jeopardising his sponsorship deals, medals and place in history. Lochte has infamously fractured an ankle riding his scooter, gone through knee surgery after a breakdancing incident and hurt his shoulder falling out of a tree. Phelps has been more careful … until now. “There are a lot of things on my bucket list now,” he says. “Skiing and snowboarding are at the top of the list. Waterskiing is something I’d definitely like to do. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do now that I’m not potentially going to ruin a career.”
Retirement is obviously an exciting time for the man who’s arguably the most successful athlete ever. Anything is possible and, for the first time, everything is allowed. For the moment, everything’s also incredibly busy — but you get the sense that’s just fine. “I’ve just come from St Andrews,” says Phelps. “Tomorrow I fly back to the States. I’m there for three days, then I’m heading to China for a pro-am golf tournament, then to Brazil. I’m seeing new places and spending more time with my foundation.
It’s a lot of travelling, a lot of suitcases, but not too many pools.” He pauses. “That’s a good thing.”
Phelps’ Pool Workout
Olympic accomplishments aside, the most interesting thing about Phelps may be his training, if only because it’s so standard. “The thing that makes Michael great is not that he’s had some specialised program, but rather that he’s a good fit for what we do here,” says Bob Bowman, who has been Phelps’ coach since day one. “Honestly, Michael does the North Baltimore Aquatic Club training program — it’s just 8 x 400m. There are maybe five to seven people doing his same workout.”
The Phelps difference? Volume and intensity. “What made Michael’s training different was the way we individualised it,” Bowman explains. “I’ll give him specific times with a specific amount
of rest between each 400m, and they’ll be done in a certain way. It’s not as if Michael does 6 x 400 and everyone else does 9 x 300 — it gets too disjointed that way.”
At his training peak, Phelps was swimming an almost unbelievable amount — 80km a week. He’d train twice a day three times a week, and once every other day. And any time he wasn’t in the pool, he was recovering — “ice baths, stretching, working with a trainer or getting massages. And I slept in a chamber at 9000 feet [2700 metres],” Phelps says. What sets the most decorated Olympian of all time apart from his peers is his build — a 2m wingspan on a 193cm body propels him through the water with more force than most men his height, while his unusually long torso furthers his reach. His hands and feet are enormous for a man his size, allowing him to move more water with each stroke, and his comparatively short, stocky legs give him a stronger kick with less drag. Double-jointed ankles and elbows don’t hurt, either.
What does it add up to? A dead-set winner. While we can’t guarantee you’ll be as fast as Phelps, you certainly can train like him. His pool workout is below.
No Pain, No Gain
“The one workout he would probably hate the most, that I love the most, is called the ‘Janet Evans’ set,” says Bowman. [The former 1988 and 1992 US Olympian won five Olympic medals (including four gold) and set seven world records. Her 400m freestyle world record stood for 18 years and her 800m world record for 19 years.] “Evans used to do it when she was younger, and it’s a mix of freestyle and individual medley [IM = butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle] swimming. It’s 4000m long, lasts almost an hour, and mixes speed and endurance.”
1 x 200m freestyle 2:20
4 x 200m IM 2:30
1 x 400m freestyle 4:40
3 x 200m IM 2:25
1 x 600m freestyle 7:00
2 x 200m IM 2:20
1 x 800m freestyle 9:20
1 x 200m IM 2:15
His laid-back approach
“I’ve been motivated for everything. I’ve had goals every step of the way, so going into the London Olympics I was more relaxed than I ever was. I knew what I was capable of and I was looking forward to finishing how I wanted to, on my own terms. I can say that I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted, and that’s fine. I never have to worry about what if I did this or that.”
His most memorable medal
“I have to mention the 400m medley from 2004, my first Olympic medal. But the 200m freestyle from Beijing was one of my best races and it’s hard to not put the 100m butterfly in there, or the 400m relay. There are a lot of memorable races, but the 400m in Athens and that 200m free in ’08 are probably my favourites.”
His mental preparation
“Before a big race there’s not much you can do. All the work and everything you do is in the preparation. So really I’d spent years leading up to London. Once you get to that point, you can’t change your strokes, everything you’ve done is going to come out during the meet. So at that point you just try to have as much fun as possible.”
His favourite training tunes
“I look at music like the soundtrack of my life. There’s a song for everything I’ve done in my career. There are songs that remind me of my mother, remind me of my sister. It’s mostly hip-hop. The beats let me focus on my own zone. I’m more of a Biggie Smalls than a Tupac guy. I have Ready To Die, Biggie’s album, on at least two or three times a week.”
Get fit like Phelps
Build the body of an Olympic icon
Phelps didn’t capture 22 Olympic medals by training in the pool alone. He cross-trained extensively, and the weighted sled was an important tool in his regimen. There are countless ways to burn fat and build muscle with a weighted sled, and you can target nearly every muscle in your body. Your first step is to invest in some quality equipment — we suggest the Pro Weight Sled (universalselfdefence.com.au), Prowler 2 (available at elitefts.com) or Drive Sled II (performbetter.com), shown here. Your next step is to try the following routine, inspired by Phelps’ own training. Add it to the end of any weight workout to burn fat, build endurance, and give your upper back — a common weak point — a real blast.
Load the sled with 20-40kg and grasp the upright handles. Sprint with the sled for 40 metres, rest for 60 seconds and sprint back. Repeat for 10 sprints.
Attach straps to a sled and hold a handle in each hand. Walk backwards from the sled to take out the slack, and when your arms are extended in front of you, squeeze your shoulder blades together and draw your arms back and out 90 degrees. Walk backwards until your arms are in front of you and do another fly. Continue for 20 metres. Do 10 sets.