(NBC)–Sitting on the deck at his beloved Meadowbrook, Michael Phelps glances toward the pool where he was once afraid to put his face in the water.
“This is me,” he said, a slight smile curling off his lips. “This is home.”
This is where Phelps put in most of the work to become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. This is where he’s looking to add to that legacy after an aborted retirement, his eyes firmly on the Rio Games two years away.
And as the world’s greatest swimmer takes his comeback to it’s the biggest stop yet, this week’s U.S. national championships in Irvine, California, it’s important for him to remember where he came from.
Why? Because for all the hoopla over LeBron James returning to Cleveland, there’s no bigger homebody than Phelps.
He still trains at the pool where he learned to swim, a nondescript building in Baltimore’s inner suburbs, right in the middle of the Jones Falls flood plain.
Drive past the shuttered ice rink with weeds growing up at the edges and there it is, a rectangular cube of gray concrete blocks.
Inside, kids do cannonballs off the side of the pool, teenagers sun on the faux beach with umbrellas stuck in the sand, geriatrics glide slowly through the water looking to ward off the advancing years.
In the middle of this scene out of Anywhere USA, there’s Phelps and his star-studded training group, an impressive collection of gold medalists, world champions and national record holders.
“It’s funny,” said his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. “When I come out here and see kids playing around, that’s just what Michael did every day when he was a little kid. When I first met him, he was just playing around in the pool, playing games with his friends.”
As they wrapped up preparations for the national championships, Phelps and Bowman shared an exclusive look at what goes on behind the scenes .
TRAINING FOR GOLD
Before the Athens and Beijing Olympics, Phelps would push himself to the brink of exhaustion in practice, swimming up to 16,000 meters a day. Now, he’s putting in about half as many laps in the pool but doing longer sessions in the weight room, resulting in a more muscular physique.
Even though Phelps is only 29, an age that many consider the prime for a male athlete, there’s a lot of mileage on those dangling arms and shorter-than-expect legs (an unusually long torso is one of the anatomical keys to Phelps’ success). His body doesn’t recover as quickly as it once did, so he’s focused on becoming bigger and stronger, in hopes of going faster over shorter distances. No longer will he compete in the 400-meter individual medley, a brutal event that is essentially four races within one. He dropped the 200 butterfly as well, giving up one of his signature events.
At nationals, Phelps’ longest event will be the 200 IM. He’ll also compete in three 100s – freestyle, backstroke and fly. Still a daunting program, but nothing like rival Ryan Lochte, who’s entered six events, or 17-year-old Katie Ledecky, who put her name in eight.
But perhaps the biggest change for Phelps is those he trains with on the Meadowbrook-based North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
There’s Yannick Agnel, the towering Frenchman who won two golds at the London Games; Allison Schmitt, who captured five medals at the last Olympics; Lotte Friis, a bronze medalist from Denmark; plus Conor Dwyer and Matt McLean, both with a relay gold to their names.
“If I want to be the best in the world, I needed to have the best coach and the best group in the world,” Agnel says. “Where else can I find that but here?”
From Bowman’s perspective, this is just what Phelps needed, too – stiff competition, on a daily basis.
“It used to be if Michael was on fire, nobody could beat him,” the coach said. “Now, if Michael’s on fire, there are maybe a couple of people who can still beat him. They’re that good.”
HOME SWEET HOME
When Meadowbrook opened in 1930, it was not designed for competitive swimming. There were fountains in the middle, giant slides and high dives along the sides. Things changed in the mid-’80s, when a floating deck was installed to mark off the 50-meter racing distance. In 1995, a second pool was built, this one covered by a roof and surrounded by three walls, with tarps that can be lowered on the fourth side to keep it running in the winter.
Phelps’ two older sisters were competitive swimmers at Meadowbrook, so it was only natural for him to take lessons when he was 6. Cathy Bennett was his first instructor.
“It sounds pretty important, doesn’t it?” she said, laughing. “It didn’t feel important at the time, I’ll tell you that.”
Phelps, to put it bluntly, was a handful.
“I hate to say that about Michael,” Bennett said apologetically, “but he had every excuse in the world to get out of the pool. ‘I need to go to the bathroom. It’s too cold.”’
Actually, the youngster didn’t feel comfortable putting his face in the water. Bennett told him to swim on his back. Within a few weeks, Phelps flipped over.
He never looked back.
Even as his fame grew, Meadowbrook remained pretty much the same. When it’s time for training outside the pool, Phelps and his teammates trudge down a rocky path, to a “weight room” that is nothing more than slab covered by a tent. For pull-ups, they grab a U-shaped pipe and yank themselves off concrete blocks. On this day, Schmitt cut the bottom of her foot while walking back toward the locker room without shoes.
“It might not be the prettiest or the best facility to train in, but it gets the job done,” Schmitt said, patching up her foot and spraying blood off the deck. “It’s kind of homey.”
Agnel prefers it this way.
“When you have something so fancy, you forget everything about hard work, the tough life,” the Frenchman said. “In some kind of way, this helps us to be mentally tough as well. It’s pretty cool.”
For Phelps, it’s more than cool.
It’s home – so much so that he and his coach now run the place.
“Who would think the greatest Olympian of all time would come from suburban Baltimore?” Bowman said. “But he’s got to come from somewhere. It might as well be here.”