The family's devotion to the sport had started before Michael was born. Debbie Phelps was the stay-at-home mom of two small girls in rural Harford County, Md., on the Pennsylvania border. Fred, her high school sweetheart and a onetime defensive back at Fairmont State College in West Virginia, was a Maryland state policeman and often worked swing shifts. On the recommendation of her pediatrician, Debbie started the girls, seven-year-old Hilary and five-year-old Whitney, swimming, and they took to it like mermaids. Born just as the girls began to race, Michael spent countless hours riding in the back of the family car to training sessions and races. He started swimming when he was seven but resisted getting his face wet, so he stuck to backstroke.
Whitney was the swimmer with early promise. She swam on a world-championship team at 14 and was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the 200 butterfly entering the 1996 Olympic trials. However, she had been fighting soreness in her back for months before the event. "I was telling people, 'No, it doesn't hurt,' but I was walking around like an 80-year-old woman," she says. "But get out of the pool? Never. You don't want to be a wimp." She finished sixth at the trials and failed to make the team.
Michael remembers the heartbreak of his sister's crushing disappointment. Debbie can't discuss it without crying. Hilary says, "Nobody talks about '96. It's the elephant in the room for our family."
It was the type of experience that could have soured the family on supporting another child in the sport. But it did not. Later that year Bowman was hired as coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He inherited Michael, a short, skinny kid with uncanny presence in the water. Within a year Bowman suggested to Debbie and Fred that their son might someday make the Olympics and therefore should consider dumping baseball and lacrosse. Michael resisted. "You're ruining my life!" he told Bowman one afternoon during eighth grade, when the coach suggested adding morning workouts. "I'm spending 90 percent of my time at the pool."
Bowman backed off and implemented the double sessions a year later, when Phelps was more mature, and the work paid off. In a preliminary swim at the spring national championships outside Seattle in March 2000, Phelps lowered his 200 butterfly personal best by an astonishing five seconds, to 1:59 flat. The time instantly made him one of the fastest swimmers in the world, at age 14. "It was the most boring environment you could imagine," says Bowman. "There were maybe two people in the stands. There was no cheering. Then Michael swims 1:59. I remember walking to my car after that swim, stopping and saying out loud, 'He's going to make the Olympic team.' That day changed everything."
Phelps went to the 2000 Olympic trials as a dark horse in the 200 fly, and he didn't go alone. Whitney had continued to swim in pain, just well enough to earn a scholarship to UNLV, and had qualified in the same stroke and distance. "Good enough to qualify, not good enough to make it anymore," she says of her decision to pull out of the race because of a bulging disk in her neck. But when Michael stunned the swimming world by making the team with a second-place finish, she greeted him on the pool deck with a lingering hug. "Huge," says Michael. "So huge."
"I just went with my feelings that day," says Whitney. "It was an amazing thing, for a male swimmer that age to make the Olympic team. And he's my little brother; he means the world to me."
High above the water, Debbie wept. She and Michael have always been close, but their bond had gotten stronger after Debbie and Fred's 1995 divorce. "She has always been there for me," says Michael. "She's done everything. We're best friends." Last Mother's Day morning Michael instructed Debbie to watch a TV interview in which he emotionally described her place in his life and ended by saying, "Thanks, Mom." When he returned to Maryland from Colorado in mid-June, he delivered Slurpees to the office where she works as a school administrator.
Fred Phelps, who retired in February after 28 years, says, "Michael and I were close when he was little. We went to games together, we hit baseballs, did all the things that fathers and sons do. When Debbie and I divorced, there were some tough years. I know what it's like; my dad died when I was eight." Father and son trade regular e-mails, but Michael says, "Right now is when I don't need anything new in my life."
On a cold, gray morning in late December, Phelps arrived at the Meadowbrook pool to find that Bowman had assigned him a crushing set of 50 100-meter, kick-only sprints. Phelps climbed into the pool and began moving slowly. Bowman shouted at him, "You might as well not even bother!" Phelps, holding a kick-board, shouted back at Bowman, and before long Phelps was in his Escalade, headed back home. "I don't even remember whether I quit or got kicked out," says Phelps.