IRVINE, Calif. — This is the first year swimming star Michael Phelps blatantly ignored his coach’s training plan. Some days he would show up to practice, his coach, Bob Bowman, said this week. Other days he would sneak off and play golf. There would be no phone call, no heads up. Bowman would wait by the side of the pool at the designated workout time. If Phelps’s lane remained empty, he would go on without him.
The unexplained absences and lack of communication occasionally stretched for more than a week at a time.
“Sometimes, I would get worried: ‘Is he okay?’ ” Bowman said. “Not that he wasn’t doing his freestyle work, just: ‘Is he okay?’ ”
Phelps’s performance this week at the Pan Pacific Championships has reflected his sporadic attention to the sport. He collected his fifth gold medal of the meet Saturday night in the 4×100 medley relay. Earlier in the week, however, he failed to advance to the final of an event in which he holds a world record and on Saturday morning he dropped out of another event because he was out of gas. He acknowledged repeatedly that he arrived here in poor shape and felt disappointed with some of his times.
“There’s a long way to go before I get back to where I want to be,” Phelps said.
Yet even the hard-driving Bowman acknowledges that Phelps’s highly unscientific and maddening approach to reducing his training load might actually help him return to top form in time for the 2012 Summer Games in London. Phelps offers the most prominent example of a growing movement among the world’s top swimmers. As swimmers continue their professional careers well beyond college, the older generation is unable or unwilling to tolerate the sport’s extraordinary training demands day after day and year after year.
And so, with their coaches’ sanction or without, they don’t.
Some, such as five-time Olympian Dara Torres, two-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin and former Olympic sprint star Gary Hall Jr., disappear from the pool for a year or years at a time for physical and mental refreshment. Others, such as Jason Lezak, Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol, take long breaks after major championships. Phelps, 25, has taken time off in random chunks, with no apparent plan in mind.
“They’re no longer college kids,” said Jon Urbanchek, the former coach at the University of Michigan who this year joined a USA Swimming post-graduate training center in Fullerton. “They’re no longer like sheep, following one another.”
Bowman, Urbanchek and other coaches say they know they can’t force adult swimmers to train like children, yet swimming is not a sport that readily tolerates shortcuts. Brett Favre might be able to start a preseason game for the Minnesota Vikings just days after arriving to training camp, but when swimmers don’t train, they usually go slower. Even so, Coughlin and Lezak have done surprisingly well on reduced workloads, and Phelps managed to dominate two individual events here. Experience, clearly, counts for something.
The problem for coaches and athletes: There is no proven methodology for training post-graduate swimmers that strikes a tested-out balance between rest and work. Coaches say they are learning to manage their aging multiple medalists as they go, crossing their fingers that they are making the right decisions with abbreviated practices, uncustomary patience and new strategies. Phelps and his peers are, in effect, test cases.
“Nobody knows what they are doing,” Bowman said. “We are in uncharted territory.”
USA Swimming has recently invested millions in developing a trio of post-graduate training centers, one at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where Phelps trains, and others in Fullerton and Charlotte, N.C. Those facilities are designed to give swimmers who don’t wish to continue to train with their college or club teams a place to go. Great Falls’ Kate Ziegler left her longtime coach, Ray Benecki, two months ago to join the Fullerton post-graduate group.
As the London Games approach, Bowman said, he plans to take a less rigorous approach than leading up to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, but he’s not sure how it will all go and whether it will work. If the amount of training required for Phelps to win eight medals in Beijing registered as an eight, Bowman said, he forced Phelps to put out an 11 before that Olympics. But he said the next two years might be a seven.
Bowman is so meticulous about Phelps’s workout history that he possesses an extensive written record of every training session Phelps has completed for years, stacks of handwritten workout sheets piled in cardboard boxes. Bowman has been tested by Phelps’s insouciance, which he said was particularly prominent early this year.
“It’s very hard for me when I can’t follow a plan,” Bowman said. “For Michael, I have a five-minute plan. For other my other [swimmers], I have a four-year plan.
“This year, it’s been one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock, and how far can you go?”
Bowman said he wonders whether he shouldn’t have just told Phelps to take an entire year off after winning eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Games. Phelps has shown up for about 40 percent of the year’s workouts, he said, and has only come to practice consistently since May.
When he did show up, Bowman made Phelps work mostly on his butterfly stroke, because Phelps’s technical mastery of it makes it relatively easy to maintain — especially over shorter distances. That, perhaps, explains how Phelps won his only two individual gold medals here in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200 butterfly. The time he posted in the preliminary round of the 400 individual medley fell more than 11 seconds under his best time in the event. He dropped out of the 200 medley shortly before the heats Saturday.
Phelps said he has been motivated by this week’s lackluster performances, but time will tell how much.
“I really can’t do anything now,” Phelps said Friday. “The real test of my motivation is going to be when I get back in the pool. That’s where we’re really going to see how much it motivated me.”
Fellow swimmers and USA Swimming officials have shrugged off Phelps’s lapses, pointing out that he has still posted excellent times in some races — his leadoff leg in the 4×100 freestyle relay would have won him the gold in the 100 freestyle final — while noting that this summer offered the least significant competition of the four-year Olympic cycle.
“He’s having the appropriate meet under the current circumstances,” said Mark Schubert, the National Team Director for USA Swimming.
Schubert was asked how he would have handled a collegian who refused to show up to daily practice when he coached at the University of Southern California.
He would have said, “You need to turn in your scholarship or come to practice,” he said. “That’s appropriate for an 18-year-old.
“But for our older swimmers,” he added, “we are reinventing the sport.”
While Phelps relaxed, his biggest rival, Ryan Lochte, said he worked harder over the last seven months than he ever has, and his results here demonstrate the difference. Lochte, who took Phelps’s world record in the 200 medley last year, claimed his sixth gold medal of these championships with a win in the 200 medley on Saturday night.
Lochte, not Phelps, has been this meet’s male star.
“There is no doubt this is good,” Bowman said. “The way [Phelps] is talking now, I know I have his attention. That has been the most positive part of a frustrating year. Even if he could intellectualize some things, he didn’t care. Now he cares.”
Added Bowman: “I’m tired of hearing he’s out of shape. We know. Shut up about it. Do something about it.”