Ten o'clock on a mid-April night, and Chicago's Palmer House hotel is lit up, with media members milling in the bars and Olympians giving interviews and USOC officials checking names off lists. Beijing is less than four months away, and here is a last chance to interview the athletes whom, come August, America will suddenly want to know about. Which is to say, it's a final crack at Phelps. At a press conference earlier, one female reporter had asked him, "Can you give me two exercises people can do to get a swimmer's type body?"
"Well ... they could swim."
"After this I go to blackout mode," Phelps says, walking through the lobby with Bowman. "No one can get hold of me. I don't have to worry about anything, and I have no commitments—that's my favorite part. I just attend to what's coming up."
Before the bliss of Olympic immersion, however, Phelps is headed to Colorado Springs for one last brutality: a training camp at 6,000-foot altitude with several Bowman swimmers. "Seventy practices in 24 days," Phelps says. "By the end, we're at each other's throats. You learn to steer clear of people, there's so much emotion going on."
With that scenario in mind, it seems fitting that Bowman, conductor of this orchestra of pain, minored in music composition and majored in developmental psychology at Florida State. "Michael hates my sets," he acknowledges. Why? "They're hard. And the ones I like the most are the most painful." Phelps agrees: "My teammate Erik [Vendt] and I look at each other and go, God, not this one. You've got to be kidding me! What's he trying to do to us?"
If you went into a lab and mixed up the ingredients for the ideal coach, you'd invent someone like Bowman. A talented swimmer in college, he quit because he was driving himself nuts with his own incessant performance critiques. "I was coaching myself all the time," he recalls. "Well, I should've done this, and I could've done this better...." At the same time, he loved everything about the sport. Moving to the deck was a logical segue; Bowman inhaled what technical material he could get his hands on—not much in 1986—and then looked around for more. His eye landed on Paul Bergen, the coach who'd developed Tracy Caulkins, still considered by many the best all-around women's swimmer in U.S. history.
"I thought, This is a guy who knows what he's doing," Bowman recalls. "I wanted to work with him, but after the 1988 Olympics he quit coaching to train racehorses." What to do? Well, if you're Bowman, you travel to Napa Valley, buy a pair of knee-high boots and head for the stables.
"I'd clean the stalls and ask him about swimming," Bowman says, noting that along the way he also got hooked on horses. He currently owns and trains nine thoroughbreds. "The horses have taught me to be a better observer," he says, "because they can't tell you what they're feeling."
Phelps, however, can. As they wait to be seated in the hotel restaurant, Phelps is asked what it's like to swim 5,000 meters (more than three miles) for time, one of Bowman's semiregular requests. His face turns stony.
"I do not do that anymore. I can't.... I'm not. Those days are bye-bye. I could do that when I was young. But now I'm old. I'm old now. I'm old. Twenty-two. Almost 23."