When I first meet the 19-year-old wunderkind from Baltimore who could beat Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, I figure there is no way this kid is going to help me improve my own swimming performance. After all, I'm a 40-something lunch-break swimmer of average build who never even swam on his high school team. Michael Phelps, on the other hand, is a genetic freak. He's 6'4", but more to the point he has the wingspan of a prehistoric bird. His unusually lengthy torso (it's the right size for a man 6'8") affords him more flat surface area with which to surf the top of the water. And he's got hyperflexible knees and ankles that give his kick more snap, and big hands and feet that push a lot of water.
But according to sports scientists, his physique tells only part of the story. Whereas most elite swimmers measure blood lactate levels of 10 to 15 millimoles per liter after a race, Phelps measures as low as five. In other words, he's able to go faster calling on far less lactic acid–producing anaerobic energy reserves than his opponents. That's a testament not to genetic superiority but to the quality of his endurance training, and it gives some hope to the rest of us at the shallow end of the gene pool.
To prove that this approach can speed up almost any recreational swimmer, Phelps's coach of eight years, Bob Bowman, has offered to put me through one of his workouts. Whipping out his stopwatch, he sends me into my warm-up, a pretty aggressive set of 50-meter drills to get my heart rate up. Then comes the main event, the ladder. At a brisk but contained pace I swim 50 meters, 100, 150, 200, resting 30 seconds between distances as I work my way up, and then down, at full speed now, in descending increments, with the lure of increasing brevity spurring me to valiant effort. I don't have much of a sprint to lay on him at the end, but I keep up a determined, chugging rhythm. With the cardio-lubricating warm-up behind me I find I'm not doing my familiar lactic acid–seizing Tin Man routine. Only my feet are cramping, I tell him. Bowman issues an unsympathetic nod. "Okay, 1:39 for the 100," he barks. "Very good."
Later Bowman explains that by changing distances and pace he's working all of the body's energy systems. But the prime target, for both Phelps's three-hour workout and my Mini Me version, is the upper aerobic range. Bowman does relatively little slow and steady lap work; likewise, he's leery about too much sprinting, which can break young swimmers' bodies down. His forte is miles of brisk tempo work, extending his swimmers' aerobic ranges so they can handle more distance and speed without going into oxygen debt. This prescription of endurance with an edge also seems the perfect treatment for the recreational swimmer looking for a dose of competitive fire.
After the ladder Bowman has me do 12 laps of freestyle with a pool buoy between my legs, to isolate my arms. The catch is, I can breathe only four times per lap. "This enforces stroke discipline," Bowman explains. "You don't expend any more energy than you have to, and the best way to do that is to be relaxed." Cool.
Afterward I feel unbroken, lightheaded, exhilarated. "You've got a nice stroke there," Bowman offers, and while I don't see him dialing any master swim coaches, I sense potential that could be tapped if I challenged myself like this regularly.
Phelps has watched some of my workout, probably at Bowman's suggestion. For whatever reason, I'm touched. This, after all, is the pre-Athens breakout star whose mother let him use money from one of his endorsement deals to buy new rims for his Escalade as a "treat" when he broke a world record. Standing poolside in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, though, he looks like a quiet, sleepy-eyed kid. "The more the water feels like home," he advises me, "the faster you swim." He's got some standard pointers, like pressing my chest down and bringing my hips up so my torso rides the water as cleanly as possible. "Like a boat," he says. He's being a good sport, and I appreciate it. At 19 he'd rather just do these things, sublimely, than analyze them in me.
"Eating, swimming, sleeping, that's pretty much it," Phelps says when I ask him about his routine these days. The thing is, he likes it, he says. "I'm living in a dream."
Next year Phelps plans to follow his coach to the University of Michigan, where Bowman will be the head swim coach and Phelps will be the most accomplished club swimmer in the universe. (He can't swim for the Michigan varsity, since he's been earning money from sponsors for three years.) His life will open up – maybe a switch to less demanding sprint events, girls, maybe even an occasional beer. Bowman, meanwhile, knows the dream is coming to an end. "I think we've gone as far in machine mode as we can," he says. "Michael's got to grow up. That doesn't mean his swimming will be destroyed. But everything will change."