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Authors: Michael Phelps

No Limits

BOOK: No Limits
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To the power of dreams

Special thanks to my family, coach, teammates, and numerous others who helped me reach my goals

To Kayla, Bobby, and Rachel


I screamed. You bet I did. I mean, I totally let loose. I clenched my fist and arched my back and screamed and howled and yelled.

And it felt so good. So very good.

No, it felt great.

Better, maybe. It was primal. It was as good as it gets.

I let it all out: joy, relief, excitement, passion, and pride, especially pride in being an American.

It's like that at the Olympic Games. Years of training, of hard work, of desire and discipline—all of it compressed into minutes, sometimes just seconds, and time seems to stand still as history plays itself out.

There's nothing sweeter than winning.

And we had just won. We had set a world record, too, obliterated the old record, really. The Stars and Stripes. The American men. Us.

I had just been part of, had also just been witness to, the most amazing, thrilling, exciting, supercharged swimming race ever, an instant classic if ever there was one, one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.

Even before the start of the race that morning, the atmosphere inside the Water Cube in Beijing, the swimming and diving venue at the 2008 Summer Games, was electric, the noise ferocious.

This was the 400-meter freestyle relay. Four guys on each team. Each swims two laps of the pool.

Eight lanes in the pool, eight teams, but really only three that were likely to win: the Americans, the French, the Australians.

I went first. Garrett Weber-Gale followed. Cullen Jones followed him. And then came Jason Lezak, our anchor.

When Jason dove in, the French were slightly, ever so slightly, ahead.

Halfway through his leg, Jason, who has for years been one of the truly outstanding sprinters in the entire world, one of the best freestyle relay swimmers ever, had fallen farther behind the French racer, Alain Bernard, who had come into the relay as the world-record holder in the 100.

With 30 meters to go, Jason was behind.

With 20 to go, he was still behind.

But he was charging.

Now Jason was gaining.

On the deck, we were going crazy, Garrett and I. Not that anyone could hear us. It was so loud inside the Water Cube that you couldn't hear yourself think. Not that anyone was thinking. We were wishing, hoping, praying, urging. Shouting, screaming, yelling. Come on, Jason! Get that guy! Get him! Get that guy! Get him!

At the wall, Jason reached out his hand. We turned to look at the big board across the pool and—yes!

Jason had done it! He had, somehow, done it!

Jason had thrown down the fastest relay leg of all time. We needed every bit of that. We had won, the scoreboard said, by eight-hundredths of a second. The French were second, the Australians third.

I had no words. I had only screams.

Because this was not about me.

It was epic.

Of course I had won a gold medal, and that was the goal. But
this was about something way bigger than any personal accomplishment. We swam together, competed together, four as one, together, as a team and as Americans.

But that only begins to explain why I had no words.

Of course the relay gold kept alive my quest to chase eight gold medals at a single Olympics. I understood that then even as I understand it now, as I will understand it always.

But that was not why I had no words. The notion of eight golds was always a means to an end. It was never about chasing fame or fortune or celebrity.


If I could win eight, could go one better than the great Mark Spitz and the seven golds he won at the Munich Olympics in 1972, those eight medals might do what nothing else could. They could help to make real my biggest dream, to elevate swimming's place in the American sports landscape, and to make it an every-year sport instead of a once-every-four-years sport.

I never set out to be the second Mark Spitz.

I only wanted to be the first Michael Phelps.

I wanted to do something no one had ever done before.

Baseball is great, basketball so cool, football so fine; I love the NFL, especially my Baltimore Ravens. But in other countries, particularly Australia, swimming has the same cachet that baseball, basketball, and football have in the United States, with packed houses and passionate fans. Why can't it be like that in the United States?

It can.

That's why, when Jason touched first, I had no words.

A few days later, I found myself again without words, after I swam my last race at the 2008 Summer Games, the 400-meter medley relay. Aaron Peirsol went first, swimming the backstroke; Brendan Hansen swam the breaststroke; I swam the third leg, the butterfly; and then, just as he had done in the 400 free relay, Jason brought us home in first, this time ahead of the Australians.

We had done it, another gold.

I had won eight gold medals.

I let out another scream. I thanked my teammates, and a jumble of emotions washed over and around me. I felt gratitude and relief and joy, just sheer joy at the moment, at the culmination of a journey filled with twists and turns and ups and downs. I felt humbled, too. I felt profound humility at learning how I had become a source of inspiration for so many back home, everyone who said I offered renewed proof that America and Americans could still take on the world with courage and grit, who declared that the virtues so many Americans hold so dear—hard work, character, commitment to family, team, and country—could still triumph.

No matter where Americans were in the world, I'd been told, they were watching and cheering; that was special. Back home, I'd heard, bars were erupting in cheers when I'd won. I'd heard that my races had been shown on jumbo video screens at Major League Baseball and NFL games, on one of those big screens in Times Square. I understood that the drama and anticipation and excitement of some of my races had kept people glued to their television sets into the night. That very first relay. The 200-meter butterfly, when my goggles filled with water and I couldn't see, literally couldn't see, and still won. And then the 100-meter butterfly, which I had won by one-hundredth of a second.

I looked into the stands, for my mom, Debbie, and my sisters, Whitney and Hilary. When I found them, I walked through a horde of photographers and climbed into the stands to give each of them a kiss, with the memories of where we'd been and what we'd overcome flooding over me. Mom put her arm around my neck and gave me an extra hug.

When I was in grade school, I was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. I had overcome that. When I was in school, a teacher said I'd never be successful.
Things like that stick with you and motivate you; I flashed back to that with my family there in the stands. I started crying. My mom started crying. My sisters started crying.

I started swimming when I was a little boy. Both Hilary and Whitney were champion swimmers, and when I was very much the baby brother, it looked like Whitney was the one from our family who was going to make it to the Olympics. That didn't happen. And here I was.

I felt lucky for the talent that I have, the drive that I have, the want, the excitement about the sport, felt lucky for every quality I have, and have worked so hard to have. In some sports, you can excel if you have natural talent. Not in swimming. You can have all the talent in the world, be built just the right way, but you can't be good or get good without hard work. In swimming, there's a direct connection between what you put into it and what you get out of it.

I knew I would find my coach and longtime mentor, Bob Bowman, around the pool deck. Bob, the only coach I've ever had. He had trained me, punished me, motivated me, inspired me, and proven to me the connection between hard work and success. Bob has long been one of the very few people in my life to tell me the unadulterated truth, even when I didn't want to listen. Perhaps most important, especially when I didn't want to hear it.

Bob's philosophy is rather simple: We do the things other people can't, or won't, do. Bob's expectations are simple, too. It's like the quote he had up on the whiteboard one day at practice a few months before the Games. It comes from a business book but in sports it's the same: “In business, words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.”

Bob is exquisitely demanding. But it is with him that I learned this essential truth: Nothing is impossible.

And this: Because nothing is impossible, you have to dream big dreams; the bigger, the better.

So many people along the way, whatever it is you aspire to do, will tell you it can't be done. But all it takes is imagination.

You dream. You plan. You reach.

There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes.

But with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you, there are no limits. Perseverance, determination, commitment, and courage—those things are real. The desire for redemption drives you. And the will to succeed—it's everything. That's why, on the pool deck in Beijing in the summer of 2008, there were sometimes no words, only screams.

Because, believe it, dreams really can come true.

400 I

Leading up to and through the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming, which were held in Omaha, Nebraska, in late June and early July, I kept having a most particular dream.

It involved the number 3:07.

The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing would get under way on August 8. I had no idea what 3:07 meant, or why, or why I kept dreaming about it.

But, there it was: 3:07.

Logically, naturally, it seemed like a time.

But a time for what?

3:07 in the afternoon? In the morning?

I am a fanatic for training and for hard work and discipline. Even so, I wasn't getting up at 3:07 in the morning to go to the pool, that was for sure.

I couldn't figure it out.

It was especially perplexing because swimming, like baseball or
football, is a sport with its own history and lore that lends itself elegantly to numbers and statistics.

Everyone who follows baseball knows that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs during his career, for instance, or that Ted Williams hit. 406 in 1941, or that Bob Gibson pitched so magnificently in 1968 that he ended the year with an ERA of 1.12.

Everyone who knows a thing or two about football knows that the Miami Dolphins went 17–0 in 1972, or that Tom Brady threw fifty touchdown passes during the 2007 NFL season.

Even people who don't know much about swimming almost surely know that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972 at the Olympic Games in Munich. And that I could win eight in Beijing in 2008. Eight is an auspicious number in Chinese culture. The Games were going to start on 8/8/08, at precisely 8:00 p.m. local time; the date and time were picked because the Chinese word for eight,
sounds like the word for prosperity,

The problem I was having, though, was simple. There is nothing in swimming in which 3:07 made any sense whatsoever, which was totally weird, because there are vast columns of numbers in swimming to crunch. The sport is measured mostly in meters but sometimes in yards. There are world records, Olympic records, American records, even what are called U.S. Open records, meaning a mark that is set on American soil, whether by an American or someone from somewhere else.

The swim calendar in recent years has kept to a fairly consistent routine, too, at least for American swimmers, which makes it all the easier to track the numbers: meets early in the year in places as different as Long Beach, California, and Columbia, Missouri; in May or June in Santa Clara, California; and one or two major meets, such as the U.S. Nationals, the Pan Pacific Championships, the swimming world championships, and, every fourth summer, the Olympics.

Moreover, I can, at a given moment, pretty much rattle off times for the events I swim, in either yards or meters.

In none of those columns of records did 3:07 compute.

Still, the dream kept coming.


When I'm in training, as I was before the 2008 Olympics in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had moved after growing up near Baltimore, we typically practice early in the morning, then again in the late afternoon at the University of Michigan's Canham Natatorium. In between, I usually take a nap.

We would swim miles in the morning, then more miles in the afternoon.

Eat. Swim. Do other workouts, like weightlifting. Sleep. That was the routine. Believe me, working out that hard in the morning and then again in the afternoon made a nap no luxury. It was an essential.

One of the things about my naps is this: If I'm sitting there right before I doze off or immediately after I get up, I can visualize how I want the perfect race to go. I can see the start, the strokes, the walls, the turns, the finish, the strategy, all of it. It's so vivid that I can vividly see incredible detail, down even to the wake behind me.

It's my imagination at work, and I have a big imagination. Visualizing like this is like programming a race in my head, and that programming sometimes seems to make it happen just as I had imagined it.

I can also visualize the worst race, the worst circumstances. That's what I do to prepare myself for what might happen. It's a good thing to visualize the bad stuff. It prepares you. Maybe you dive in and your goggles fill with water. What do you do? How do you respond? What is important right now? You have to have a plan.

I'm not really sure, precisely, why I'm able to visualize like this. I have always been able to do it, ever since I was little. It's also true that I got lots of practice growing up; since I've been swimming it's been very much a part of the rhythm and routine of my life and of the house in which I grew up.

I grew up the baby brother in a house rumbling with girl power. My sister Whitney is five years older than I am, Hilary seven. When she was little, Hilary wanted to be the next Janet Evans, the record-setting American swimmer who was perhaps the best female distance swimmer of all time; Janet won five Olympic medals, four gold, between the 1988 and 1992 Games. Hilary grew up to be an excellent distance swimmer and set records at the University of Richmond. Whitney, as a teenager, was one of the best butterfly swimmers in the United States; she competed at the 1996 Olympic Trials.

So I was always, always around the pool. When I was a baby, my mom used to pick me up out of my crib, my pajamas still on, and drive me and the girls to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center. She would change me in the car and, while the girls were swimming laps, I would stay there and play.

The North Baltimore club has a tradition of excellence, including female gold medalists at the 1984, 1992, and 1996 Olympics, and training there included sessions during which kids were taught how to visualize, as part of the process of setting goals. Whitney remembers it like it was yesterday. Sit quietly in a room, lights down, see a race from start to finish: diving in, how and when to breathe, what it would feel like to turn hard off the wall, to power to the finish, even how to get out of the pool.

Mom and I used to go through relaxation and programming techniques at home. My coach, Bob Bowman, had my mom buy a book that set out drills and exercises, including one in which I would tighten my right hand into a fist and relax it, then do the same with my left hand, as a way of learning to deal with tension. At night, before falling asleep, I would lie on my bed and she would read to me from that book, and I would practice.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, Bob started asking me to play a race in my head as though it were a video. When we were in training, we'd get to the last repetition of a set, particularly a
really hard set, and Bob would want me to do that last repeat close to race speed. He'd say, okay, put in the tape and see yourself, for instance, swimming the 400 individual medley at the nationals.

To this day, if Bob says, okay, put in the videotape, that's what he means.

They say that the mental aspect of sports is just as important as the physical part. There can be no doubt about that: Being mentally tough is critical. At an Olympic final, you know everybody has physical talent. So, who's going to win? The mentally toughest. Bob is a big believer in that. I am, too. Bob also believes that my visualization skills carry over to my training, and to my racing, and that it's part of what makes me different.

Bob and I have been together for so long—we started together when I was eleven, and I turned twenty-three during the 2008 Trials, in Omaha—that he doesn't even have to say much to me now to make sure I'm preparing mentally as well as physically.

He doesn't have to nag. Not like that would work.

He just says something like, how's the visualizing going?

Fine, I'll say.

Or, he'll say, have you started yet?

Yes, I'll say. Or, not yet. Whatever. Bob just wants to make sure it's happening.

It always happens. Always.

But nothing was leading me to the answer of what my dream meant.

3:07. I kept trying to figure out the mystery.

An Olympic-sized pool is 50 meters long.

I don't swim the 50-meter freestyle sprint in competition. But I knew, of course, that whoever was going to win the sprint at the Beijing Olympics would do so, given advancements in pool technology and in swimsuits, in particular the Speedo LZR Racer, in well under 22 seconds.

The 100-meter freestyle winner would go in about 47 sec
onds. The 200 free would end in about 1 minute, 43 seconds, the 400 free in about 3:42, maybe slightly under.

There are three other strokes on the Olympic program: the backstroke, the breaststroke, and the butterfly. But races in those two strokes are only at 100 and 200 meters, not anywhere near long enough to be in the water for 3:07.

There are three relays on the Olympic program, too. Two of them are freestyle relays, the 400 and the 800. Four swimmers take turns swimming laps, 100 meters apiece in the 400, 200 apiece in the 800. In neither of those could 3:07 mean anything.

The other relay is what's called the 400 medley relay. Again, four swimmers take turns swimming laps. In the medley each swims a different stroke: in order, the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle. The winning time in the medley tends to be about three and a half minutes.

I was completely stumped.

Finally, I went to Bob to ask him what he thought it might be. Bob usually has the answers. It can be frustrating but it's true: Bob usually has the answers.

Bob's interests out of the pool range across a wide variety of subjects. He can tell you about thoroughbred horses. About the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. About the genius of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Bob played violin and went to Florida State because it was an excellent music school; he studied music composition very seriously. He then switched to child psychology. Bob gets asked all the time if I see a sports psychologist. He answers: every day.

The dynamic of our relationship over the years has been this: Bob pushed. I pushed right back. Bob can be gruff. He can be demanding. Sometimes he yells at me; as I've gotten older, I've shouted right back. The venting we do at each other just shows that I'm not scared of him, and he is for sure not scared of me. And the vast majority of the time, as in any partnership that works, and ours works, totally, we get along great. Because,
bottom line, Bob is not only coach and mentor but so much more.

When I was younger, he had taught me how to tie a tie. For my first school dance, when I was thirteen, he let me leave practice fifteen minutes early; when I showed up with the tie and went to put it on, he noticed that my shirt was buttoned one button off. So we fixed that together. When I was a teenager, he taught me how to drive. His car was a stick shift, and that's how I learned. I always had trouble: I remember going to school one day, on a hill at a busy intersection, and of course I stalled the car in the middle of the hill. There were tons of people behind me. We fixed that together, too. I remember getting out of a workout and going to the prom—regular black tux, stretch white Hummer limo—and Bob was there to watch me head off.

All the little things like that: Bob has always been there for me.

At the Trials, I told Bob, I'm trying to make sense of this 3:07. What do you think it could be?

At first, he said he didn't know.

The only thing he could think of, he finally said, was that 3:07 somehow related to the 400 individual medley, a race that like the medley relay combines all four strokes. The difference, of course, is that it's just one person doing all the swimming, not four. Also, the order is different from the medley relay. In the IM, it goes: fly, back, breast, free.

I had held the world record in the 400 IM since 2002. When I first set the record, at the summer nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I touched in 4:11.09. Over the years, I had lowered the record a number of other times. At the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, I had lowered the 400 IM record to 4:06.22.

3:07, Bob said, had to be a split time, meaning an intermediate time in a given race, in this instance after the breaststroke leg, or three-quarters of the 400 IM, with only the up-and-back freestyle portion to go.

If you do that, he said, you're going to finish in 4:03-something.

That would be at least seven, nearing eight, seconds better than I had gone in first setting the record just six years before.

More than two seconds better than I had gone in Melbourne.

4:03? Obviously, some strong part of me believed I could go 4:03.

If you put a limit on anything, you put a limit on how far you can go. I don't think anything is too high. The more you use your imagination, the faster you go. If you think about doing the unthinkable, you can. The sky is the limit. That's one thing I definitely have learned from Bob: Anything is possible. I deliberately set very high goals for myself; I work very hard to get there.


Then again, why not? No limits.

•   •   •

Every year since I have been swimming competitively, I have set goals for myself. In writing.

The goal sheet was mandatory. I got used to it and it became a habit. When I was younger, I used to scribble my goals out by hand and show the sheet to Bob. Now, I might type them on my laptop and e-mail him a copy. Each year, he would take a look at what I'd given him, or sent him, and that would be that. He wouldn't challenge me, say this one's too fast or that one's not. When I was doing this only on paper, he typically would look at it and give it back to me; now he simply files away the electronic copy I send him.

I usually kept my original paper version by the side of my bed.

The two of us are the only ones who have it, who ever got to see it.

The goal sheet was famously secret for a long time…Until now.

I didn't look at the sheet every day. I pretty much memorized it, how fast I wanted to swim and what I had to do to get there.
If there was a day when I was down, when I was not swimming well, when I simply felt tired or grouchy, I would look at it. It was definitely a pick-me-up.

BOOK: No Limits
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