The 18-time gold medalist, competing in the U.S. Winter Nationals from Thursday through Saturday in Federal Way, is eager to see how all the hard work he’s done on his psyche will translate to his swimming.
Michael Phelps is a new man. Everyone who knows him agrees with that assessment, Phelps himself most definitively.
“I’m a lot different now than I really ever have been,’’ Phelps said Wednesday at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way. “I am who I am, and I’m OK with that. I love me for me. … I would never change the way I am now for anything.”
If that sounds like a man in touch with his feelings, well, that’s what six weeks in a treatment facility, as Phelps spent last year, tends to do.
AT&T Winter National Championships
When, where: Thursday-Saturday, King County Aquatic Center, Federal Way.
Format, schedule: Long-course meters (50m). Prelims begin at 9 a.m. and finals at 6 p.m. each day.
Notable participants: 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, Olympic champion Nathan Adrian of Bremerton, Olympic champion Missy Franklin.
Phelps is more relaxed, more focused, healthier and, especially, happier than he’s ever been. The cranky and reckless version of Phelps that played out in public, larger than life, is gone — forever, he firmly believes.
And now, as the final step in the transformation of the most decorated swimmer in history, Phelps is eager to see how all the hard work he’s done on his psyche will translate to his swimming.
We should get a clue this weekend when Phelps, along with the cream of American swimming such as Missy Franklin and Bremerton’s Nathan Adrian, compete in the U.S. Winter Nationals, Thursday through Saturday at the KCAC.
Phelps is entered in one event a day — the 200-meter individual medley Thursday, the 100 butterfly Friday, and 200 butterfly Saturday. He holds the world’s best times this year in each of those events.
And that’s the most amazing part of this redemption story: Many in the swimming world are convinced that, at age 30, with four Olympics and 22 medals behind him — 18 of them gold — Phelps has a chance to be faster than he’s ever been.
That’s because, in a startling admission, Phelps says that for all his glittering success, he didn’t even train at full effort for the 2008 or 2012 Games.
“I’m looking forward and I’m motivated to see what I really can do actually giving 100 percent,’’ Phelps said.
At that point, Phelps turned to his longtime coach — Bob Bowman, sitting next to him on the podium — and said, “We both know, I haven’t gone into one — maybe one Olympics at 100 percent. In ’08 and ’12, I wasn’t 100 percent at either one of those Games.”
That boggles the mind, considering Phelps won eight golds in eight races in Beijing in 2008 and six more medals in London in 2012. But his training was as sporadic as his partying lifestyle was reckless. Bowman said leading up to London, he never knew if Phelps would show up for workouts.
Phelps announced his retirement after London, then hit bottom in September 2014 with an arrest for drunken driving. In a revealing and apparently cathartic Sports Illustrated cover story last month, Phelps admitted that, “I was in a really dark place … not wanting to be alive anymore.”
He checked into The Meadows, a residential treatment facility in Wickenburg, Ariz., where, he told SI, “I ended up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach.”
In counseling sessions, he worked at discovering who he was as a person, rather than as an athlete. Most important, he was able to repair his troubled relationship with his father and forge a new understanding with Bowman.
“Just being able to get some of the things out from inside of me that I hid for so long, or I compartmentalized for so long, was something that felt good,” Phelps said Wednesday. “I felt like there was a weight off my shoulders.”
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Phelps said his relationships with friends and family are better than they’ve ever been. He and his girlfriend, Nicole Johnson, became engaged, and have a child on the way. And with his mind cleared, Phelps decided last year to train for one final Olympics, which will take place next year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Phelps hopes what he might have lost in the aging process he will regain, and exceed, through his renewed training. And as he aims this weekend to beat “the young bucks,” as he calls them, in the same Federal Way pool in which he competed as a precocious 15-year-old, Phelps is completely reinvigorated.
“Now in the pool I almost feel like I’m back in high school again,” he said. “That’s how much fun I’m having.”
Swimmers such as Adrian have noticed, and embraced, the new Phelps. (Although Phelps joked that when he went into the hotel elevator Wednesday morning, two swimmers quickly scooted to the back. “Am I really that scary?’’ he mused.)
“I think it’s exciting, and he’s not just saying it,’’ Adrian said. “He’s certainly living it from what I’ve heard, too.”
Bowman certainly feels the change more keenly than just about anyone. For one thing, Phelps hasn’t missed a single day of workouts over the past several months.
“That’s a huge difference over the five years previous,’’ Bowman said. “I never have to worry about whether he’s going to be there, or whether he’s going to be into it.”
Phelps said he doesn’t get frustrated as easily as he used to, and he’s more engaged in all aspects of his life. He eats healthier and has stopped drinking. He’s enjoying mentoring the next generation of young American swimmers.
“I’m probably harder (on them) than I should be,’’ he said. “But I want to see them succeed and do their best.”
A more immediate goal is at hand, however, before Phelps hands over the reins.
“I want to be back to where I was, stroke-wise, in 2008,’’ Phelps said.
That goal no longer sounds far-fetched. Bowman joked that the new Phelps is more apt to hyper-analyze his training methods … in a good way.
“He kind of overthinks things now because he’s so clearheaded,’’ Bowman said. “It’s just fun to have him do this for the right reasons: because he loves it.”
Phelps said flatly that he will be done with competitive swimming forever after Rio in August, so these next seven months are his valedictory. And he’s savoring them fully.
“Like Bob said, I’m here because this is really what I want to do, and this is how I want to finish my career,” he said. “We’re going to do it my way, and we’re going to enjoy it.”