NEW YORK — Michael Phelps and coach Bob Bowman were texting back and forth a couple of weeks ago about whether he would swim a timed 5,000, a grueling workout he hadn’t done in a decade.
Phelps had a blunt answer: “No.” But then he asked, “Do I need to?”
When Bowman assured him it was a valuable step in his training, Phelps responded, “I’ll do it. Let’s go.”
The 16-time Olympic medalist told that story Wednesday to try to describe how his relationship with his longtime mentor has evolved as Phelps prepares for his last Olympics.
“The same methods that they used on me when I was 12 or 13 — I’m not the same kid,” the 26-year-old Phelps said. “When he says ‘Jump,’ I’m not going to say ‘How high?’ anymore.”
If that sounds defiant, the realization has actually relaxed the relationship between the two. While Bowman was guiding Phelps to unprecedented heights — the pinnacle his record eight gold medals in Beijing — their exchanges at practice were often tense. Bowman would bark out orders; Phelps would snap back with snarky retorts, yet still do the sets.
“Before, I said the reason was ‘because I said so,’” Bowman acknowledged.
Now, he’ll explain how the workout fits into their broader goals. And that shift in tone has Phelps feeling like an adult with a plan instead of a child being bossed around.
“The days of me, like, kicking and screaming about (his) wanting me to get into the water or (my) not wanting to do this set or not wanting to do that set — I just know that those things are going to help me accomplish my goals,” Phelps said. “One of the cool things we’ve been having over the last six to eight months is that we’ve enjoyed it. It’s not like fingernails on a chalkboard.”
The result is Phelps training with the intensity his coach expects.
“We don’t have quite the same amount of …” Bowman said, then paused to try to think of the right word. “Drama” wasn’t really right.
He settled on: “It doesn’t take quite so much energy to get things to happen anymore.”
Much energy was expended with, at times, not much happening in the three years after the 2008 Olympics, when Phelps’ focus wasn’t exactly there.
“I always felt like within a year from London, he’d get back into it,” Bowman said, before adding, “At least I hoped.”
Next summer’s Olympics are certainly starting to feel close, with Speedo unveiling its 2012 gear Wednesday. Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin and other stars modeled suits, caps — and goggles that make them look like aliens in a sci-fi movie.
Lochte said the new style made him feel like an action figure. The wide, angular lenses allow for peripheral vision, so Phelps will no longer have to tilt his head to sneak a peek at his competition after each turn, which used to slow him down by a fraction of a second.
The suits are no longer the dominant story in the sport. Around this time four years ago, Speedo unveiled the LZR, which set off a virtual technological arms race that eventually led governing body FINA to restrict the kinds of materials used and how much skin they could cover.
At last summer’s world championships, Lochte set the first world record since the high-tech bodysuits were banned. He also beat Phelps in both of their matchups and won one more gold medal.
The two are good friends — they were whispering and laughing together on stage Wednesday. Lochte insisted he found no extra motivation in trying to defeat the Olympics’ most-decorated athlete.
But nor is he the least bit intimidated.
“I could race Michael 20 million times — no matter what, when I step on the blocks, I feel like I can win,” Lochte said. “That’s the mentality I’m going to go into each race with, especially at the Olympics. I’m going out there to win. I’m not going for second or third.”
Bowman said Phelps took motivation from Lochte only in the sense that his rival’s feats refocus him on his personal goals.
“We know he’s there. And he will be there,” Bowman said. “I do think that kind of keeps us honest. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
Lochte says he’s in the best shape of his life. He’s added boxing to his training — though he has no plans to actually compete in the ring. In this heavyweight bout, Phelps plans to be in top form, too.
“If he’s at his best and Ryan beats him, well, that’s how it works,” Bowman said. “But I think we’ve seen that if he’s at his best, he’s kind of tough to beat.”
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