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It has been ‘Rio’: Aqua King Michael Phelps golden again 12 years after visiting area


Michael Phelps grins at a swim clinic in Spartanburg, S.C., two months after his breakout Olympics in 2004. Phelps starred again in the ongoing Olympics. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

His best triumph as a role model is giving up the bottle two years ago, to focus on a simpler liquid — water, and propelling through it faster than others.

Michael Fred Phelps II won five of six races and was second in the other one in Rio, in his sixth Olympics which he insists is his final one. He triumphed in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 IM, and all three relays. He surged to stardom in ’04 in Athens, Greece, by winning six gold in those Olympic Summer Games.

Phelps has beaten all Olympic comers a record 23 times since 2004. He entered these games already the most decorated Olympian of any sport ever. Lanky Phelps stretched his legacy to 28 medals — 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. When he stands on the podium, it usually is center stage As the victor. Phelps has won 23 of 63 Olympic swim races — better than one out of every three.

Swimming concluded Sunday night. The Games are Aug. 5-21, ending this coming Sunday.

Phelps, 31, shared tips of success to youths in this area two months after he starred in the 2004 Olympiad. Now he can pass on the lesson of foregoing partying, to better deal with stress and focus on one’s craft. He said he gave up other sports at age 11 to go all out for swimming, at 13 started practicing up to six hours daily to develop form and muscle memory, and was a swim pro at 16. With experience comes wear — he has swum around 12,000 meters in five Olympics, NBC swim analysts noted.

“I’m a normal kid. I play video games. I hang out with my friends,” Phelps told The Tribune on Oct. 23, 2004, right before studying at the University of Michigan and while teaching swim clinics that day. He did say then rigors of practice and meets “takes a lot out of you — physically and mentally.”

But he also spoke of joys. In races, rather than tune out everyone, he feeds off crowd support. “The louder the fans are, the faster I am. I draw energy, fire from them.”

Phelps taught nearly 500 area youth in two hour-long clinics in ’04, in Middle Tyger YMCA in Duncan, S.C. near Spartanburg. The fee was $100 per child; the event raised nearly $70,000 for Spartanburg-based Mobile Meals.

Reaching world-class ability takes “hard work and determination,” Phelps told youth then. He passed on his coach Bob Bowman’s regard for training as like depositing money. “very time you practice, you put money into the bank,” Phelps said. “At the end of the year at a big meet, that’s when you withdraw. This (’04) summer, I was able to withdraw quite a lot of ‘money.’” The crowd laughed. He signed autographs, and posed for a group photo.

In technical tips, Phelps said to fully extend arms beyond one’s apparent reach and cup water pulling back in freestyle. On the backstroke, reach for the ceiling and kick hard from the torso with leg straight. “Make the biggest splash you can.”

On the breaststroke, when rising out of the water, lift “your belly button as high out of the water as you can.” Phelps swam a lap underwater, using a dolphin kick from the butterfly. He urged practicing the breaststroke not with frog kick, but a flurry of more intense dolphin kicks before the first stroke. Do so “ as long as you can, but also as high out of the water as you can,” he said. “Work at a high intensity. Try to go fast, but still try to have good technique.” He added kicking and strokes in practice, “the more you think about it, the more it’ll change.”

Phelps was a spokesman for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for using athletics and other activities to boost self-esteem, confidence and achievement. “Seeing a kid succeed — it’s priceless,” the lanky 6-foot-4 Phelps told The Trib. “Whether it’s doing better in school, reading more, or scoring 10 points in basketball…”

Phelps has held world records since age 15. He did not medal in 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia — home water for the U.S.’ top rival Aussies. He won six of eight races in ’04. His peak was eight golds in 2008 in Beijing, China, topping Mark Spitz’s 1972 mark by one. He won four of five races in London in 2012, then five of six this time.

Now at 31 he is much older than most world-class swimmers by a decade. Phelps stuck to advance claims this was his final Olympics. He insisted “no, it is” while grinning in a post-race interview with NBC after his finale Sunday night. This was just after his U.S. 400-meter IM relay teammate Nathan Adrian teasingly interjected it was “potentially” his last hurrah.

Phelps said “I think you could tell” this was his last race, by his savoring the victorious moment. “I was more emotional after the relay this time, than I was last time.”

“I’m just ready for something different,” Phelps told NBC’s Michele Tafoya. Yet he left the door open with a “might” in “My swimming career might be over. I have a future ahead of me to kinda turn the page and start whatever I want…It’s not (as much) the end of a career. It’s the beginning of a new journey. And I’m looking forward to that.”

Is this deja vu? Phelps retired four years ago, but resumed swimming after a year’s hiatus and much angst. In ’04 he told The Tribune.

Before those ‘12 Olympics, he told the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins he was fatigued from his rigorous training routine and vulnerable to “falling apart.” The Baltimore native told her that after the ’12 Games, he was depressed amidst golf and other leisure — but felt refreshed after a rehab stint. Phelps has said he finally shed his partying ways. This was after controversy over allegedly smoking pot, and drunken driving arrests within months after his first Olympics then again in ’14.

But in ’14, Michael Phelps did a pivotal turnaround more crucial than any leg-kick push off of the swim pool wall. He reportedly sorted out emotional issues in six weeks of inpatient therapy, reached out to his estranged father, moved to Arizona, and is a family man living with fiancee Nicole Johnson and their infant son Boomer.

Many note Phelps seems stabler, happier, with renewed vigor toward swimming. Even he has said he was more relaxed. Instead of aloofly wearing earphones to listen to music at the Olympics, he interacted with swim teammates and said he was joking with them. He still nervously bobbed about just before races.

Do not rule out an eventual Phelps comeback and Herculean encore in 2020, especially if after a break. Longtime teammate Ryan Lochte, the Robin to Phelps’ Batman (again in the 200 IM) and his Olympic roommate, told NBC’s Today “I guarantee he will be” at the next Olympics, in Tokyo in 2020.

Yet he may be more apt to go out on top this time, feeling more fulfilled and at ease overall in life.

If he does return, an omen he can still triumph is how teammate Anthony Ervin won gold in Rio at 35 — the same age Phelps would be in four years. Ervin took an eight-year break, until winning his own publicized bout with substance abuse. He won the same event 12 years ago (over Phelps and others), quit, returned to the ‘12 Olympics and may try again in ’20.

Swimming is a premier Olympic sport, for the United States. The U.S. outdid rival Australia, to rack up the most (33) swim medals in Rio. Those 33 Olympic medals are the U.S.’ most in 16 years. Nearly half (16) were gold. That matches the gold haul in London in ‘12. Swimmers registered two-thirds of all U.S. athletes’ golds in this Olympics as they did four years ago, and over half (55 percent) of all medals which is the biggest proportion since 16 years ago.

Most impressive was his triumphing individually in the versatile, exhaustive four-lap the 200-meter individual medley (IM) for a fourth consecutive Olympiad. It has one leg in each of the four competitive strokes. He ended the opening, backstroke lap in sixth place, but turned on his fierce competitiveness and superb ability.

His specialty is 200m in butterfly — a grueling, uber-paced, hard-churning stroke. He has won six butterfly golds, dominating for a decade since setting a world record in 2007. A year later in Beijing, he broke the 200 fly world record despite distraction of his leaky goggles filling with water. He lost to South Africa’s Chad le Clos in ’12, but this time got “revenge” then did a finger wag taunt.

In Phelpian majesty in the grand finale, he took the race lead on his butterfly leg to spark the U.S. to victory in the 4×100-meter medley relay. When he dove in that last time, he flexed his shoulders upward in extra propulsion follow-through. He swam the third of four legs, setting up freestyler Adrian to wrap it up. Ryan Murphy led off with a world record backstroke time. But Great Britain took the lead in breaststroke, then led Phelps after the first of his two laps. He made his move midway into the sprint lap.

In winning his first gold,” he told NBC, it was “Just saying ‘I did it!’ After I won one, I wanted more — and more, and more, and more.”

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