Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.
Arizona’s blue skies and sunshine have been a tonic for Michael Phelps, the best swimmer in the world.
Phelps, whose 22 Olympic medals are a record, has been training at Arizona State University since last summer. He followed his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who is in his first season as head coach of the Sun Devils swim teams.
The beautiful weather and scenery have brought a peacefulness to Phelps, who is not only preparing to swim in his fourth Olympic games this summer but also is charting a course for his retirement from competition. The most decorated American swimmer will join Bowman on the pool deck as a volunteer assistant coach for the Sun Devils next fall.
“It would be hard for me to say my life could be any better than it is today, so I followed him here and we decided to finish my career in the sun,” Phelps said. “I grew up indoors. I swam indoors my whole career. Once we moved here, that’s when it sunk in that I have a clearer head when I’m outside. Being able to see the sun every day is something that’s beneficial.
“I don’t think I’ve been in a bad mood once since I’ve been here.”
Phelps, who has spent his career training in Baltimore and Michigan, has immersed himself in the Sun Devil life these past few weeks. He wore his swimsuit and several of his 22 medals in the “Curtain of Distraction” at a men’s basketball game in January. Last week, he drew a big crowd when he swam in an exhibition during the meet against the University of Arizona.
His social-media posts show him relaxed and enjoying the sunny Arizona winter with his fiancée, who’s expecting their first child later this year. He said he's amazed every day by the spectacular view of Camelback from his house in Paradise Valley.
But it was his unbreakable bond with Bowman that drew him to ASU, and will set him on his path after the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
“From day one, Bob taught me so much that I’m so thankful for,” said Phelps, who was 11 when Bowman started coaching him. “We spent so much time at the pool, but it wasn’t just swimming he was teaching me. He was mentoring me for everything that was coming my way.
“With the amount of knowledge that Bob and I have about this sport — and the amount of passion — the opportunities are endless for what can happen here.”
After nearly two decades together as coach and athlete, it will be a change for the two men.
"It would be a different dynamic between Bob and I on the pool deck together. It’s always been me in the water and him on the deck," Phelps said.
Bowman believes that Phelps will make the sometimes-tricky transition from star athlete to coach.
“Besides being the best swimmer who ever swam, he knows more about the sport than anyone,” Bowman said. “He studies the trends and the techniques. He’s worked through cutting-edge techniques for quite awhile.”
Bowman said that when he saw Phelps in the pool nearly two decades ago, he noticed his “unbelievable competitiveness.” And he quickly guided him on the path to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.
“He knows what the process is all about, and he’ll be able to transmit that information to our student athletes,” said Bowman, who will be the head coach for the U.S. national swim team at the Olympics in Rio.
And Phelps is ready to share his hard-won wisdom of life in and out of the pool.
“With these college kids, I remember exactly when I was their age and what I was doing. Hopefully I can make them better swimmers and better people,” said the 30-year-old.
Not that it’s easy.
“There are multiple things that Bob will ask me to do where at times I don’t know what he’s talking about or I don’t know why we’re doing it,” Phelps said. “But I have trust in what he says.”
The two work every day on inching closer to success in Rio. There are goals to hit every day, every week and every month.
"It's all about the process," Bowman said. "I want to make sure that on days like today, we're getting the practice in, taking the time we need to take and fixing the things that need to be fixed because once you get to the the big event, there's not much I can do besides smile and get them to the race on time."
Phelps says he can tell when Bowman has pre-race jitters.
"If we're not fully prepared, it's on us," Phelps said.
"But I feel it," Bowman interjected.
Their relationship has had its ups and downs, but both say it’s now the best it has ever been.
“We’re both in a happy place,” Phelps said. “We’re now at the point where we’re enjoying what we’re doing and it allows us to relax and have fun."
Still, Phelps said the move to ASU has caused him to reflect on certain aspects of his past with the coach.
“I asked him why we didn’t come to an outdoor pool years ago.”
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