On Sunday night, two days after leading the Team USA contingent into the Olympic opening ceremony as the American flag bearer, Michael Phelps once again moved to the front of the pack.
Swimming the second leg of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, Phelps approached the far end of the pool for his flip turn, disappeared underwater, and morphed briefly into part missile, part giant eel. His body undulated and his legs pumped and when he returned to the surface, he had powered his way to a lead that the American team would not relinquish. The gold medal it won represented Phelps’s 19th piece of first-place bling.
Phelps was 15 years old when, skinny and limber and wide-eyed, he stood on the starting block for the first time in an Olympic Games. He finished fifth in one race at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, won eight medals in 2004 in Athens (to this day, some of the most lasting images of the swimmer involve olive wreaths), and made history, night after night, with eight gold medals in Beijing. He added six medals in London, after which he retired — only to announce that he’d be returning for Rio. And now he is back indeed, despite a 2014 DUI arrest that led to a trip to rehab and a suspension from the 2015 world championships.
Swimming, like so many other Olympic sports, can be a lonely endeavor. Imagine all the time Phelps has spent with his head underwater, sights and sounds mostly muffled. Think of the disconnect between the enormity of what an athlete like Phelps theoretically represents (his family, his sponsors, his whole damn country) and the reality of who he is: just one solitary guy. When Phelps dives into the pool, there’s no one to pass to or call to for help. His friends and teammates and coaches are about as useful to him as any random fan in the stands.
And yet, over the years, many people have played a significant role in shaping who Phelps is and how Phelps swims and what Phelps will be when/if his career ever ends. They are the planets who orbit his star. If he is the solo act, they are his sweet session band. It takes a village to raise a champion. As Phelps prepares for the rest of his races in Rio, a network of his supporters is quietly getting ready as well: to cheer him, to manage him, to needle him, to remind him that when this is all over, he’ll be on diaper duty. Some have higher profiles than others, but all have had lasting influences on Phelps, and you can glean a few things about him by some of the company he keeps. Here are a few of their stories.
The Mama Bear: Debbie Phelps
"For every ‘Michael Phelps’s Mom,’" reads a line in a parenting humor book called Sh*tty Mom, "there are a hundred ‘For Ten Years, I Sat on the Bleachers Next To Michael Phelps’s Mom’ moms." Phelps can scarcely shake out an arm muscle on the pool deck without the NBC cameras panning to a nervous and/or joyous Debbie Phelps in the stands. She gets so much air time that, before the Beijing Olympics, the clothing retailer Chico’s signed a deal to make her an official brand ambassador.
Her story has been told since her son was a teen: a middle school administrator and divorced mother of two girls and a boy, Debbie watched as her ADHD-diagnosed son got picked on for his ear span and then, years later, watched much more happily as Michael began showing up those bullies with his success. Her presence, and that of his sisters Whitney and Hilary, has long been a stabilizing, and humanizing, force amid an otherwise volatile lifestyle. When, after Sydney, Phelps spoke about setting world records, his mother noted that her priorities included him finishing high school and having "a group of friends around him that was still there after the Olympics."
When Phelps finishes a race now, he glances up at two things: first the clock, then his mom — surrounded by those friends — in the stands.
The Beloved Teacher: Cathy Bennett
As a kid, Phelps hated putting his face in the water. His older sisters were dominant swimmers: Hilary would go on to swim at the University of Richmond, while Whitney swam at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic trials but ultimately had to quit the sport due to a back injury. For young Michael, though, being in the pool really wasn’t his thing. "He used every excuse in the book," his first swim instructor Cathy Bennett, whom he knew as "Miss Cathy," told Baltimore Magazine. "‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ ‘I have a stomachache.’ So finally I was like, ‘Michael, your mom signed you up, we’re doing this.’"
Bennett let Phelps swim on his back so that he could keep his face dry, and it wasn’t long before he felt more than comfortable in the water; by 8 years old, he was a rising star on the local swim team. A notable thing about Phelps is that many of the people who remain in his swimming life today are the same people who were around early on, and Bennett is no exception. She now runs the Michael Phelps Swim School in Baltimore, part of his initiative to promote water safety and swimming skills. And he still calls her "Miss Cathy."
The Calculating Coach: Bob Bowman
When Phelps’s first child was born in early May, he was given the name Boomer Robert Phelps: Boomer because it sounded good and Robert for two reasons. First, Phelps’s great-grandmother was named Roberta. Second, the coach Phelps has chafed against and celebrated with since he was 11 years old is named Robert Bowman.
The turbulent relationship between Phelps and Bowman could be a case study in some family therapy textbook. (And hey, maybe it will be: Bowman once majored in child psychology as a student at Florida State, and has been known to bring up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it relates to his athletes.) During conflicts, as ESPN’s Wayne Drehs recently chronicled, the snarky bespectacled coach and his moody athlete kick door frames and destroy equipment and flip birds. They hate and need one another. And like any pair of stubborn souls embroiled in a long-term partnership, they know exactly how to push every button.
Phelps likes to rile Bowman up by purposefully swimming slowly in practice, like a grumpy toddler refusing to pick up the pace in a supermarket aisle. Bowman — well, Bowman, as the stories go, made Phelps swim in the dark on occasion and even crunched a pair of his goggles underfoot just before a race began so that he’d have to swim blind. When Phelps ever-so-barely won a gold medal in the 200 fly in Beijing after his goggles filled with water at the start of the race, the stomped-eyewear story turned from a sorta-batshit anecdote into some crazy-like-a-fox motivational lore.
When Bowman first met Phelps, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach took immediate note of the boy’s freakish physique. (In addition to being shaped like an inverted triangle, Phelps reportedly has double-jointed ankles controlling his size-14 feet.) Bowman knew that a couple of years earlier Phelps’s parents had divorced and his dad had moved out, and he also knew that Phelps had a preternatural knack for not only moving through the water but for understanding the small bodily adjustments that would make him do so faster.
Over the years he tried to teach Phelps to drive stick (not successful) and button his shirt correctly (more promising) but it was never via warm fuzzies. If Bowman was, in some ways, a father figure, his parenting technique was unquestionably one of tough love — whether at the North Baltimore Aquatic Center, or at the University of Michigan, where Bowman saw it as his role to push Phelps, to anger him, to acclimate him to discomfort. This led to frequent tantrums from Phelps — but as Bowman saw it, the outbursts were an important part of regaining focus and blowing off steam.
Still, in the months leading up to the 2012 Olympics, which at the time was meant to be Phelps’s last, tensions between Phelps and Bowman were as high as ever. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile by Tim Layden, Bowman described a not-entirely-unusual scene that began when Phelps got annoyed that Bowman didn’t time him precisely enough during a practice swim.
Bowman wasn’t initially sure whether he wanted to work with Phelps again when the swimmer decided to unretire for the Rio games. He wasn’t entirely certain what would even become of Phelps after he heard of his arrest, in 2014, for a second DUI in 10 years. But after visiting Phelps in rehab and seeing his progress, he was convinced they might indeed have a future.
And when Bowman decided, in 2015, to take the head-coaching job at Arizona State University, Phelps headed to Tempe to train. (This included a Chippendales-y appearance at an ASU basketball game as part of the student section’s "Curtain of Distraction.") When he retires — if he ever retires — Phelps has said he intends to join Bowman as a volunteer assistant coach. It’s a change of heart since 2013, when he had told the Portland Press Herald: "After seeing everything I put my coach through, I really can’t see myself being put through that by some other kid. I know how brutal I was to Bob."
Who knows, though — maybe, at some point, Bowman will name something after Michael, too. He’s resisted doing so until now, despite the fact that he’s a thoroughbred trainer on the side who is always looking for a good horse moniker. "That’s a lot of pressure to put on a horse," Bowman told the Cape Cod Times in 2008. "The one who bites me on the ankle — that’s the one I’ll name after Michael."
The Mediator: Greg Harden
Harden, an associate AD at Michigan who focuses on athlete counseling, was a bit of a mediator and calming influence on Phelps and Bowman during the years they spent training in Ann Arbor in the mid-’00s. (He’s also one of Tom Brady’s various gurus.) In his recent ESPN profile on Phelps, Drehs noted that Harden even suggested to Bowman that maybe when Michael picked fights with his coach, subconsciously he was fighting with his dad, an observation that enabled Bowman to better empathize with his unpredictable charge.
The Trainer: Keenan Robinson
When Bowman told Phelps, in 2014, that he was thinking of taking the Arizona State job, Phelps said: "If you go, I’ll go." But he had one condition: his longtime trainer, Keenan Robinson, had to come along too. In the early weeks of training at Arizona State late last year, Robinson and swimmer Allison Schmitt, who also trains with Bowman, crashed with Phelps and his pregnant fiancée at their house.
Phelps has worked with Robinson since his days back at the North Baltimore Aquatic Center. "The gift is nothing if the artist doesn’t work it," Robinson told The Baltimore Sun about Phelps. There had been times in the swimmer’s career when Phelps’s effort and commitment weren’t commensurate with his talent. But in the past year or so, the swimmer has definitely been working it: cutting his body fat percentage in half, beefing up his cardiovascular capacity, and even trying more fashionable woo-ish tactics like cupping, an ancient suction-based muscle therapy that leaves telltale circular bruises. And as with Bowman, Robinson’s relationship to Phelps has helped lift his ship: Bowman is currently the head coach of the U.S. Olympic swim team, and Robinson is the team trainer.
The Training Partner: Allison Schmitt
The dark side of Phelps’s success was the loss of any semblance of a private life: In 2008, months after his legendary showing in Beijing, he took a bong hit at a college party and was devastated when photos of the act were sold to and printed in a tabloid. The incident made him less trusting, more wary. But one of the few people around whom he has always remained entirely comfortable — to the point of total goofiness — is seven-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt.
Before the 2008 Olympics, Phelps and Schmitt both trained with Bowman at the University of Michigan facilities, and they’ve continued to work together in the years since. Schmitt is a smiley presence who is sometimes called Giggles, and she’s one of the few people who can bring out Phelps’s silly side. Which is why it was so unexpected when she recently began speaking out about the post-Olympics depression that took hold of her following the 2012 Games in London.
"In London, I was more excited watching her win a (200 free) gold medal than I was winning my own gold medal, because of how I watched her prepare," Phelps told AZ Central. Schmitt won two relay golds in London, a gold in the individual 200-meter free, a silver in the 400 free, and a bronze in the 4x100-meter relay. But once the games ended, she spiraled emotionally downward and eventually admitted to Phelps and Bowman that she needed help.
Phelps was at his own life’s low point while Schmitt was going through hers; he was the first to catch on that something was wrong with his friend during one of the many days Schmitt drove him to practice after his license was suspended post-DUI. When Schmitt’s 17-year-old cousin, who also experienced depression, died by suicide in May of 2015, Phelps took care of a grieving Schmitt at his house two days before the funeral. Schmitt now sees mental health advocacy as her life’s great cause, and will always have a vocal ally in Phelps.
The Problematic Idol: Ray Lewis
A longtime Ravens fan, Phelps has always loved him some Ray Lewis. But when Lewis showed up in court, alongside Debbie Phelps, during Michael’s DUI sentencing, it rubbed many people the wrong way. "Perhaps Phelps picked Lewis because he knows his way around a courtroom," wrote USA Today columnist Christine Brennan. "At this critical juncture of his life, of all the people on earth Phelps could have chosen to join him in court, he picks a man who was infamously on trial for a double murder?"
It wasn’t a good look. Still, Lewis’s straight-talk influence helped Phelps make the decision to go to rehab. ("I gave him some harsh reality," Lewis told SI’s Tim Layden. "He tore me a new one," Phelps added.) According to Drehs, Phelps toted a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, a Christian book by Rick Warren, that Lewis gave him, around the treatment center and read from it at group meetings so often that some of his fellow patients began calling him "Preacher Mike."
The Visionary Agent: Peter Carlisle
Peter Carlisle first said no to Michael Phelps. When Bowman told the young agent that he’d like to set up a meeting about representing the then-teenage swimmer, Carlisle told Bowman he wasn’t available: The 2002 Salt Lake City games were right around the corner, and Carlisle’s top priorities were his snowboarders. "I was aware of Michael," Carlisle told Sports Business Journal, "but I was focused on Salt Lake. I was not leaving Utah to meet with him."
A Maine native who grew up playing sports year-round and loving the Olympics, Carlisle was working at a law firm when he went to a Portland Pirates minor league hockey game and started thinking about how he might go about marketing, even on a small-scale basis, the team’s most popular player. He dreamed about opening his own agency and decided on snowboarding — which was at the time a brand-new Olympic sport — as his first target, signing Ross Powers, Kelly Clark, and Seth Wescott.
By 2001, he sold his business to management powerhouse Octagon (on the condition that he would get to keep working out of Maine) and became the head of the company’s Olympics and action sports division. During the Salt Lake games, he appeared on Today to talk about marketing nontraditional athletes.
The chat with Lauer caught Phelps’s eye. He and Bowman waited until after the Salt Lake Olympics to try to meet with Carlisle again. (Debbie Phelps, not wanting to inadvertently influence Phelps’s decision, stayed home.) During a break in the meeting, Phelps — who hadn’t said much — was nervous and fumbling with a tray of food. Everyone at the meeting had been talking about Phelps, Carlisle noticed, so he started to chat with him — making small talk about video games and the like, and finally asking the teen: What do you want?
Phelps is a huge sports fan, and it always bothered him that swimming highlights weren’t shown on SportsCenter. "In Australia," Phelps wrote in his book No Limits, "swimmers were on billboards, in commercials. Kids grow up there wanting to be swimmers the way they grow up in the United States wanting to play quarterback. In Australia, swimming was often the lead topic on the nightly news — not just the sports segment, the entire news show." He told Carlisle he wanted to elevate swimming’s profile, and after Carlisle was hired, the two set out to create a 10-year plan to do just that.
With many of his athletes — particularly those in action sports — Carlisle’s goal is simple: to allow them to earn enough so that they don’t have to take on a second job to pay the bills. Phelps is obviously a different beast than most Olympic clients, but Carlisle still approached his marketing strategically. By seeking out major partnerships that span the four years of an Olympic cycle, Carlisle brought security to his client while also giving the brands an incentive to continue to promote their investment even during the lull between the Athens and Beijing games.
The relationship between Phelps and Carlisle runs deeper than many agent-athlete bonds. When Phelps was arrested for his DUI in 2014, he sent Carlisle a text: "I don’t want to be alive anymore," it said, according to The New York Times. It was Carlisle who broke the news of the arrest to Debbie Phelps, Layden wrote. (Carlisle has represented Debbie in the past, as well as Bowman.) After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, Carlisle personally helped arrange safe lodging in Rio for some of his friends.
And even once Phelps retires from the sport, it won’t be the end of their road. The goal, after all, is to grow the sport of swimming, and not just the brand of Michael Phelps — although, of course, it’s quite possible to do both. In 2013, the two collaborated to open the Michael Phelps Skill Center, a training facility near Carlisle’s Maine office that features a number of small swimming treadmill pools that are endorsed by Phelps and Bowman. (The goal is to open more around the country.)
When the skill center opened, Phelps visited Carlisle in Maine for the first time. A proud New Englander through and through, the agent made sure to force Phelps to take a dip in the frigid Atlantic. "My whole body was numb when I got out," Phelps said. Luckily, he got a lobster bake out of it too.
The Saving Graces: Nicole Johnson and Boomer Phelps
Phelps dated Nicole Johnson before she won the 2010 Miss California pageant; the pair met while she was a production assistant at the 2007 ESPY Awards show, which he attended. After years of an on-again, off-again relationship, Phelps and Johnson got engaged in early 2015. Phelps’s time in rehab, which helped him decide to reach out to his mostly estranged father, had also made him think about what he wanted out of his his relationship with Johnson. They decided they’d marry after Rio, go on a sweet honeymoon, and have a kid after that.
Instead, Johnson got pregnant last fall, and gave birth to Boomer Robert Phelps just two months before the U.S. Olympic trials. As a new dad, Phelps is less goggle-eyed as he is googly-eyed. He and Johnson practically live and breathe FaceTime. During his father’s races, Boomer has been in the stands with Johnson, tucked into a carrier and wearing noise-canceling, American-flag-decorated headphones. His Instagram account features adorable pictures of him in patriotic apparel. All of this has been a change from Phelps’s usual shut-out-the-whole-world pre-race routine. But if Phelps felt aimless after his last Olympics, he’s certainly got plenty he can focus on now.
The Guy Who Should Never Pay for His Own Drink Again: Jason Lezak
Being all into cupping isn’t the only thing that Phelps has in common with the great Gwyneth Paltrow: He has also, if you think about it, lived a version of the plot of her film Sliding Doors. Phelps entered the 2008 Olympics with the goal of going eight-for-eight in golds, a feat that would best the seven won by Mark Spitz in 1972, but he needed help to do so: Three of the races he competed in were relays that were mostly out of his control.
Phelps’s second race in Beijing was a 4x100-meter freestyle relay that, up until the final moments, the Americans seemed sure to lose. But Jason Lezak’s anchor swim was one of the great performances of all time, and Team USA edged out a stunned French squad to take the gold medal.
Imagine, if you will, that the U.S. had lost that race. A few days into Beijing, one of Phelps’s lifetime goals would have been rendered obsolete. Who knows: Maybe if he doesn’t win that race, he’s rattled and doesn’t win a couple of others. Maybe Spitz remains the world’s most golden boy. Maybe Phelps decides he doesn’t have it in him to shoot for London, or later, Rio. Maybe, eight years later in that same 4x100-meter free relay event, he never makes the epic turn that won him his 19th gold on Sunday night.
It’s a reminder, all these years later, of the importance of being surrounded by all the right people.