We all know and love Michael Phelps. He’s the most decorated Olympian in history, with 28 medals…23 of them gold. His career spanned five Games — two decades of dominance.
You’re probably curious, what did Phelps do to become the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen? Today we’re diving into how Michael Phelps became a superstar athlete who made history.
Michael Phelps was born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland. He started swimming at age seven, for two reasons. The first? His older sisters, Hilary and Whitney, swam, and he wanted to try the sport. The second? Phelps had a ton of energy as a kid, and his mom felt that swimming could help him keep it under control.
He discovered how much he loved swimming, and ended up joining the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at age 10.
Discovering His Potential
Around this time, Phelps met his coach, Bob Bowman. As a coach for North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bowman recognized Phelps’ potential, and started pushing him to train harder.
By 1999, Phelps had made the U.S. National B Team. He was just 14!
At 15, he turned pro, becoming the youngest male swimmer ever to do so. For the next 16 years, Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps traveled the world together competing internationally and eventually became household names.
Coach Bowman was there when Michael made his first Games in the 200 meter butterfly and represented Team USA in Sydney, Australia, and when he became the youngest swimmer ever to break a world record, winning the 200 meter butterfly at the 2001 World Championship Trials.
Coach Bowman coached Phelps through all five Games, and all 28 medals.
Phelps has said that training with Bowman is the smartest thing he’s ever done. So much so, that he has followed his coach around the country to keep training with him.
He followed Bowman from Maryland to the University of Michigan in 2004 when Bowman was named head coach of the school’s varsity swimming program.
The two ended up back in Maryland when Bowman was hired as CEO of North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 2008. And then, in 2015, Bowman started as head coach at Arizona State University, and Phelps moved to Paradise Valley, Arizona, where he still lives today.
It’s no secret that Phelps trained hard. You have to if you want to be the greatest swimmer in the world! During the peak of his training, Phelps swam about 80,000 meters a week. That’s almost 50 miles!
He would swim twice a day, and sometimes more if he was training at high altitude. A lot of his training was focused on drills, underwater kicking, vertical kicking and sculling. Even the best of the best need to work on the fundamentals every day!
Bob Bowman is to thank for such rigorous, specialized training. Phelps has said that Bowman reminds him of a drill sergeant!
Dryland was a big part of Phelps’ routine, too. He hit the gym to lift weights at least 3 times per week. Overall, he trained for 5 to 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. Training was a full time job!
On top of his workouts, sleep and recovery were also an essential part of Phelps’ training. Inadequate rest could impact his performance and leave him prone to injuries. Phelps has said that he would sleep at least 8 hours per night, and take a 2 to 3 hour nap during the day.
He would spend weeks at a time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to reap the benefits of training at altitude. When he wasn’t in the mountains of Colorado, he often slept in an elevation chamber in his bedroom.
The Diet of a Champion
When you train as much as Phelps did, you’re going to get hungry. And Phelps was definitely an eating machine.
There was a rumor that he ate upwards of 12,000 calories a day, but Phelps himself squashed that myth. He actually ate 8 to 10,000 calories each day to fuel 30 hours per week of training.
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In one interview, he said maintaining his diet felt like a job. An important job, but a job nonetheless.
So, what did a full day of eating look like for Phelps? According to a 2012 interview with Men’s Health, Phelps would down a large ham and cheese omelet, a big bowl of oatmeal, fruit and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was often a hearty meatball sub. For dinner, Phelps piled his plate high with lean meats, whole grains and lots of veggies. He often went back for seconds!
Fueling up with nutrient dense foods helped Phelps maintain his high training volume and continue to build strength.
The World’s Best Work Ethic
But beyond the intense workouts and the crazy diet, there’s a huge mental aspect to training that Phelps succeeded at: He was disciplined and laser-focused on his goals.
His work ethic, dedication and determination, combined with his natural talent, set him on a path to succeed in 5 consecutive Olympic Games. He understood that to do extraordinary things, he had to go above and beyond.
Bob Bowman has described Phelps as “a solitary man” with a “rigid focus” at the pool, but a caring, kind-hearted and invested man in his personal life. This immense internal motivation set Phelps apart from others.
He trained on his birthday, and even Christmas Day. He learned to see setbacks as opportunities, and used trash talk from his competitors to fuel his drive to win.
Structured goal-setting also helped Phelps become such a high achiever. He would write down his goals on paper, and refer to them after a tough day, or when he needed extra motivation.
A Non-Traditional Path
Another reason Phelps was able to dedicate so much time and mental energy to training was that he chose not to graduate from college. He did take a few classes at the University of Michigan while he was training there with Bowman, but swimming was always his main focus.
And, when you compete in 2 Olympics before age 20, that makes complete sense! While some people are full-time students or full-time workers, Phelps was a full-time athlete.
And that hard work paid off. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Michael did what no athlete had ever done before: he won 8 gold medals in a single Olympics.
He passed fellow American Mark Spitz for the record of individual gold medals in a single Olympics, not only winning all his races in Beijing but breaking a world record in almost every single race.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Michael won four gold medals and two silver medals.
Making a Comeback
After the London Games, Phelps decided enough was enough. He retired from swimming, and dropped off the swimming scene….but not for long.
Without the regimented structure of training and guidance of his coach, Phelps spiraled into a deep depression and contemplated suicide.
It wasn’t long — just 2 years — before the itch to get back in the water pushed Phelps to grab his suit and dive back into the pool.
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Michael Phelps’ return to competitive swimming was one of the most successful comebacks in the history of professional sports. This time, he wasn’t training for the medals, or the fame. He was training for himself. He wanted to enjoy the process. And that made all the difference.
Going into the 2016 U.S. Trials, Phelps felt stronger in the water than ever before. His head was in the right place, and Bowman changed up Phelps’ training to set him up for a stellar performance at the Rio Games.
In the 2016 Games, he won five gold medals and one silver medal, helping team USA take home 33 medals in swimming. This made him the most successful athlete of the Games for the 4th Olympics in a row!
Michael has officially retired from competitive swimming…for now.
A Strong Support System
We can’t talk about Phelps’ success without mentioning the incredible support system he had behind the scenes.
His mother, Debbie, is probably one of the most iconic swim moms. From high school swim meets to record-breaking Olympic performances, she was there through it all. She supported Phelps when he wanted to watch race footage during dinner, and encouraged him to learn from his mistakes.
In 2016, Phelps married former Miss California USA, Nicole Johnson, whom he had been dating on and off since 2007. Johnson stood by Phelps through mental health struggles, and was a source of comfort and stability as Phelps trained for his final Olympics and entered retirement.
At the Rio Games, Nicole and the couple’s oldest son, Boomer, joined Debbie and Phelps’ sisters in the stands to cheer him on.
And of course, Bob Bowman has been a huge source of support from the very beginning of Phelps’ career. Such a long coaching relationship is rare. His dedication to Phelps’ success and deep understanding of who Phelps is as a person and a swimmer played a major role in how Phelps developed as an athlete.
Michael Phelps is proof that if you stay disciplined and focused on what you want, you can achieve your goals. We hope you’re inspired by his work ethic, and can apply some of the principles Phelps used to achieve success to your own swimming journey.
From finding a good coach to fueling your body properly to staying disciplined with your workouts, we can all take valuable lessons away from Michael Phelps’ incredible career.