Seeking Answers, Michael Phelps Finds Himself

Too Big to Fail

For several years, beginning in grade school, Phelps had a recurring dream about snakes. They would appear suddenly in his path, “and I would freak out,” he said. The dream started sometime after his parents divorced when he was 9.

Phelps’s father, Fred, who spent over a quarter-century as a Maryland State Trooper, was a shadowy presence in the life of his youngest child and only son. What bonding they did was through sports. His father recalled taking Phelps to Orioles home games. His law enforcement ties allowed him to gain access, with his son, to the clubhouse.

Phelps played multiple sports until he was 11, even if he started the day with a swim workout.

In 1996, Bowman, new to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, told Phelps’s parents that their son had the potential to make the Olympics and become a “special” swimmer. But it would require sacrifices from everybody. They would have to make sure Phelps got to workouts in the early morning and the late afternoon, seven days a week as it turned out, and Phelps would have to give up other sports.


Michael Phelps with his father, Fred, a longtime Maryland State Trooper, in 2000. Phelps has re-established regular contact with his father since his stay at the Meadows.

John Makely/The Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press

Fred said he had reservations about sending his son down such a narrow path. “He never got a chance to be a teenager, like most normal kids,” he said, adding: “I’d encourage him to take the occasional break. I’d say, ‘Let’s take three or four days, go to the beach.’ And I’d get overruled.”

His parents’ divorce was hard on him. He would grow upset when his father missed a swim meet or canceled a father-son outing at the last minute, summoned to work.

Phelps said he channeled his anger and disappointment into his swimming workouts. “I would use that for fuel in the pool,” he said.

In 2000, Phelps became the youngest male on the United States Olympic swim team, qualifying in the 200-meter butterfly as a 15-year-old. At the Sydney Games, with both parents in attendance, he finished fifth.

At the world championships in Barcelona, Spain, three years later, Phelps became the first man to break five individual world records in a meet. The competition foreshadowed his eight-medal haul at the next year’s Olympics, in Athens, and also the jealousy his success would engender. Bowman remembered that when Phelps walked into the dining hall after his first world-record swim, the other American swimmers showered him with hearty applause. After his second and third world-record swims, the reaction was more tepid.

By the end of the meet, Bowman said, the clapping was halfhearted. “I remember it so clearly,” Bowman said. “It was like the other swimmers were thinking, What spot of mine is he going to take in the next Olympics?”


Michael Phelps sporting the six medals he won at the world swimming championships in Barcelona, Spain, in 2003, setting some world records in the process.

Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The same isolation that Phelps experienced in his swimming family, he would recreate in his nuclear family. Sometime after the 2004 Olympics, father and son stopped speaking. “We’re both a little hotheaded and we react emotionally,” Phelps said. “I knew exactly how to set him off and he was the same way with me.”

Phelps’s original goal had been to raise the profile of the sport. After his superstar turn at the 2008 Olympics, he felt trapped because of how well he had accomplished his mission. In retrospect, Bowman said, Phelps probably should have retired after the Beijing Games. But he was 23 years old, with no college degree, and several of his corporate partners, as well as swimming’s national governing body, were keen on his continuing to grace the world stage.

“We created a monster, and after Beijing it was too big to fail,” Bowman said. “We had to do whatever we could to keep it going. That’s how we got to London. The deal with his dad, how to come to grips with his fame, those kinds of things I thought we’ll deal with later.”

Phelps described his decline as “inevitable” and said: “It’s like we dreamed the biggest dream we could possibly dream and we got there. What do we do now?”

In 2009, a photograph surfaced of Phelps smoking from a marijuana pipe. The picture was taken at a small private gathering where Phelps believed he was among friends. After that, Bowman said, Phelps changed. He became warier, wearier.

Despite a general disinterest in training, Phelps qualified for the 2012 Olympics with minimal preparation and won four golds and two silvers. He retired to the golf links, but with no structure to his days and no energy-sapping exercise to mitigate his symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he acted with more impulsivity. Phelps drank alcohol, sometimes heavily, and hung out with people who enabled his sometimes reckless behavior.

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