He self-medicated and wondered whether his was a life worth living. Here was his chance, they told him, to face the issues he had avoided for so long.
That first day at The Meadows, he barely spoke to anyone. But gradually, he opened up and began to understand his snake nightmares. The evolution of Michael Phelps Look at how the life of Michael Phelps -- including a complicated relationship with his father, Fred, his second DUI arrest in 2014, time in rehab and his connection with former linebacker Ray Lewis -- has evolved Phelps into the person he is today.
ON A CLOUDLESS, sun-splashed January morning at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex at Arizona State University, Bowman stands under a canopy, the steam from his coffee fading into the air above.
Nine months earlier, Bowman left the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to take the head-coaching job at ASU. team for Rio and become the first American male swimmer to compete in five Olympics.
On this morning, Phelps and nine other Olympic hopefuls push themselves up and down the 50-meter pool, their eyes set on the U. Olympic trials (which begin Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska) and ultimately Rio de Janeiro. If he wins gold at age 31 (his birthday is June 30), he would become the oldest gold medalist in Olympic swimming history.
"So whenever he felt threatened or frustrated or whatever, he'd turn me into Fred and yell at me," Bowman says. Yet their relationship had deteriorated to the point where Phelps would change his airline seat whenever his reservation was booked next to Bowman's.
"It took me awhile to realize that."The more Bowman understood, the more sympathetic he felt. He had no peers, no place where he could fit in and act like everyone else his age. Then he'd feel guilty, come back and train pretty hard. Communication away from the pool took place through Words With Friends.
He grew up staring at a black line in the pool, maturing slower than his peers and eventually seeking refuge from the eyeballs that stuck to him everywhere he went. We kept doing this dance."Phelps wanted to quit but felt he couldn't because of sponsorship obligations. When Phelps participated, Bowman knew they were in a good place. And honestly, for his future, that's the way it had to be."With Debbie and his sisters in the stands, Phelps somehow still won six medals in London, including four golds. But a year later, Phelps told Bowman he wanted to come back. "I didn't want to go through that again."Phelps convinced Bowman that this time would be different.
But the nature of training for the Olympics doesn't allow much planning for the emotional aftermath. But I do feel like along the way, we probably didn't spend enough attention to the other sides of him."After winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Phelps went on a global tour of interviews, meet-and-greets and red carpets. After the world championships in 2009, Phelps' drinking, partying and rebelling ways became worse. When he didn't, he knew they weren't."It was like Goldman Sachs, too big to fail, right? "I wanted to teach him a lesson and let him suffer. London ended with a hug and a "good job," and then the two men went their separate ways. The coach also thought a return to the pool might help the swimmer stay out of trouble.
And even if it did, no one could have prepared Phelps for his level of success."Maybe it was wrong to push him so hard to do these things," Bowman says. On his first day away from all that, he was photographed smoking from a bong at a party in South Carolina. Each day at Meadowbrook, Bowman's eyes would bounce from the clock to the front door and back, wondering whether Phelps would show."It was awful," Bowman says. But now we can't because he's like a national treasure, so we have to keep doing this."By the summer of 2012, no one hated swimming more than Michael Phelps. Somehow, they managed to keep it all a secret outside of Phelps' innermost circle. But that fall, Phelps was arrested and charged with DUI.
Bowman was equally dogged, the rare individual who refused to back down from Phelps, even if the swimmer was throwing a water bottle at his head or "MF"-ing him in front of the rest of the team. And no one will soon forget the time Bowman and Phelps both peeled out of the Meadowbrook parking lot in a testosterone-filled "Days of Thunder"-like rage, middle fingers fully extended."The way they handled themselves at times was embarrassing," Debbie Phelps says. "Then he showed up like nothing happened."Bowman says training sessions often went one of three ways: Phelps would misbehave, undermine Bowman's instructions or be so focused and dominant that he would demoralize everyone else. A few days earlier, Bowman missed a training session -- a rare occurrence -- because he was sick.
In 2010, a screaming match in baggage claim at Baltimore-Washington International Airport ended with Bowman imploring Phelps to swim somewhere else. And god forbid Bowman show excessive attention to any of his other swimmers. When you even it up, let me know.'"Even today, the edgy banter remains. He says Phelps texted him: "If I would have known you weren't going to coach me I would have just stayed in Baltimore." Bowman didn't take it as a joke."Only he would do that," Bowman says.
"If there is anybody he thought I liked or might take one ounce of attention away from him, they were on death watch forever," Bowman says. At one January workout, Phelps asks Bowman for his time after completing a set. "Everybody else is worried, 'Oh my god, Bob never misses a practice.' And that's his message to me. It's kind of this egocentric thing."Not until Bowman arrived in Ann Arbor in 2017 to coach the University of Michigan swim team did he fully understand the dynamic.
Bowman tried to arrive at the pool before any of his athletes, often before 5 a.m. "And if he ever did, it was, 'Well, I'm here before you -- don't you know the coach should be here before the athlete? Phelps enrolled there soon after Bowman arrived, and Greg Harden, Michigan's director of athletic counseling, met with both men regularly.
He was the peacemaker, once suggesting to Bowman that perhaps when Michael was picking fights with his coach that he subconsciously was fighting with his dad. And I almost did."Phelps and Bowman, who shared an agent, were tied together as coach and athlete through sponsorships and endorsements as well.
Phelps' issues centered largely on his complicated relationships with two of the most influential men in his life -- the one who had been there for him and the one who pretty much hadn't.
Phelps' parents divorced when he was 9, and he'd long felt abandoned by his father, Fred.
The pool was his escape, and Bowman was a surrogate father of sorts. Outside the water, he taught him how to drive and knot a tie.
Eventually, Phelps realized that all the Olympic medals in the world couldn't ease his pain -- and instead made life more complicated. I thought the world would just be better off without me.
By 2014, he was approaching 30, lost, with no identity beyond that of a champion swimmer. I figured that was the best thing to do -- just end my life."But after his arrest, family and friends persuaded Phelps to get help.
It was a testament to how far he had come at The Meadows, a psychological trauma and addiction treatment center about an hour northwest of Phoenix.
Phelps entered The Meadows five days after his second DUI arrest on Sept. In those five days, he barely left his room, ate or slept. "He sounded terrible," longtime coach Bob Bowman says.
"Barely coherent." Upon his arrival, Phelps texted his mother, Debbie, and Bowman telling them it was the most scared he had ever felt.
He trembled at the thought of sharing his inner demons with strangers.
Two years earlier in London, he'd cemented his status as an Olympic god, but at what cost?
Ryan Lochte (32) and Matt Grevers (31) could join him in Rio.
But Rio is about far more than Phelps adding to his legacy.
It's the next step toward achieving the same peace and balance on land as he's had in the water. Eventually, someone snapped."They would go at it, and nothing would stop them," says Allison Schmitt, another North Baltimore swimmer. It was like a soap opera."The stories of their many fights are legendary.
This morning, Bowman pays only half attention to warm-ups as he tries to explain his relationship with Phelps over the previous two decades. The pair met in 1996, when Bowman came to North Baltimore on his way to veterinary school. Even in the beginning, coaching Michael Phelps wasn't easy. At the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center, where Phelps trained, there's still a massive dent in a door frame, courtesy of Bowman's right foot after one of their arguments.
Bowman planned to quit coaching after a pair of Olympic hopefuls left him before the Atlanta Games, but North Baltimore's Murray Stephens offered him $30,000 to coach for one more season. He was diagnosed at age 9 with ADHD and can be stubborn, hardheaded, isolated, unforgiving and ruthless. But those are the same traits that can breed greatness. A trainer has the cracked stopwatch Bowman once chucked at a wall in disgust.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 18 Body Issue. Editor's note: This story contains explicit language. For as long as Michael Phelps can remember, he's hated snakes.
As a little boy, he picked up a rock in his parents' front yard and found a hissing, slithering snake.
He was so traumatized that for decades the memory would replay in nightmares that left him shaking, sweating and unable to fall back to sleep.