He may have been the greatest swimmer ever whose exploits in the pool include smashing almost all world records, but as a kid, Michael Phelps dreaded the water. “I was somebody who was afraid to face the water as a kid, I guess I overcame that fear pretty fast,” Phelps, the greatest Olympic athlete, said at an event organised by private equity fund Truenorth in Mumbai on late Wednesday.
Phelps, who has had 23 Olympic golds, including the record-making haul of eight at Beijing in 2008, said many children are like him, who are afraid of water, and that a non-profit initiative started by him a decade ago has so far taught 30,000 children about swimming.
Speaking about the 2008 games, Phelps said he was programmed to be just perfect during the eight days of pool competitions, which included a strong focus on exactly how much he drinks, swims, eats and sleeps.
Phelps recounted he had only 70 minutes between two competitions the 200-metre freestyle and anchoring the US team to a victory in the 800-metre relay – and had to manage a cool-down and a 400-metre warm up for the next event after squeezing-in time for medal presentation for the first event.
“I just ran around the venue and made it in time for the start of the next race,” he said. He rewarded himself with a break a life first when he had taken time off after the 2008 games but contractual commitments with sponsors made him return to competitive swimming.
Phelps admitted that he was “faking it”, not giving his best and underlined that the results are there to see for everyone – he won four golds at the London 2012 games.
Fall from sporting glory and some family issues led him into depression after the 2012 games, which included flirting with suicidal thoughts as the purpose of living became difficult to find. A month of mental detox at a training centre later, he was back to water.
“I was able to just look at myself as a human being. I think that was the first time I had been really able to do that. For so long, I thought of myself as a swimmer. I didn’t look at myself as a person,” he revealed, adding that for the first time, he was “vulnerable”.
Having fought the demons, Phelps focused on the next big task, the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, where he ultimately hauled five gold medals.
“It (the comeback) was for me. And that was the only reason I was coming back. I wanted to come back because I wanted to finish on my terms, I wanted to retire from the sport and be able to hang up my suit the way I wanted to,” Phelps said.
The only way to achieve this was the perfection in training sought by his long-time coach Bob Bowman, he added.
Phelps said all through his career, he laid a strong focus on training, which included being in the pool for every single day for six years in the early 2000s, which gave him an edge of training 104 days more per year than his competitors.
“I was willing to make that much more sacrifice as a kid because I had the chance to do something that nobody in history ever thought of or believed it was possible… nobody else had the opportunity on the planet and there was only one Michael Phelps,” he said.
The swimmer said his coach put him through the most rigorous training regimens, including working for any mishaps in water to ensure success and recounted one such tale of water seeping into his goggles in a race.
He said 25 metres into the 200-metre butterfly finals at Beijing, water seeped into the goggle and he became “blind”.
However, courtesy the preparations, he could swim the remaining 175 metres, including at least three turnarounds in the pool, by simply adjusting to the circumstances that involved counting the number of strokes, he said.
All through his career, Phelps said, he tried to be competitive, aim high and never rest on laurels.
“As a kid growing up, I wanted that feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal, breaking a world record and becoming a professional athlete. By 18, I had accomplished all three,” he said, adding that he continued despite all this till hanging up the suit after the Rio games in 2016.
“I despised losing in anything I did. I hate losing more than I like winning,” he said.