BEIJING (Reuters) - The first time Bob Bowman met Michael Phelps he knew instantly he had discovered the once in a lifetime swimmer every coach dreams about.
Phelps was just 11 at the time but Bowman was so excited by his incredible athleticism and untapped potential that he was unable to sleep that night.
“He was so fast he had to swim with older swimmers and because I was a new coach and I wanted to impress them and think I was tough, I gave them an extremely difficult training program,” he told a select group of journalists on Wednesday in a previously unrevealed look into some of the methods he used to train the most successful Olympian of all time.
“Because Michael was the youngest, he would go to the back of the line...but by the end of the practice, and at the most difficult part of the training session, I saw a little cap moving up forward to the front of the line with each repeat swim.
“It was so remarkable, I’d never seen anything like it and when I went home that night I couldn’t sleep I was so excited, but of course I didn’t tell him that.”
Bowman’s excitement was tempered by the realization that he needed to improve his own coaching skills and come up with new ways to get the best out of the young athlete.
He started by increasing his training workloads. Phelps effortlessly coped with every task he was set.
One time during a school vacation, Bowman extended his training session and made it as hard as he could. As soon as it finished Phelps jumped out of pool and started throwing water at some of the girls in the club.
“When I disciplined him and tried to get him to stop playing around I said ‘you should be very tired, that’s the hardest practice you’ve ever done’.
“I’ll never forget, he looked me straight in the eye and said ‘I don’t get tired’, so I made that my life goal to see if I could accomplish that.”
In the first year that Bowman started training Phelps at North Baltimore, he asked him to pick his three favorite races, nominate the times he wanted to achieve for each and make that his goal for the year.
“He was just 11 but six months later he swam those exact times, to the one-hundredth of a second,” Bowman said.
“I don’t know how that’s possible but it’s true. “He always had a very good sense of finding where he wants to go and how to go there.”
Bowman began setting his young charge more outrageous challenges to prepare him for later life.
They all paid off in Beijing. Phelps had to swim 17 races in nine days to win his eight Olympic gold medals — nothing compared to when he was 13 and Bowman would make him swim 21 races in three days.
That same year, when Phelps was swimming at one of his first national junior meets in the U.S., Bowman noticed he had left his goggles behind just before he walked out to the blocks.
“I saw them sitting in our team area, I could have taken the goggles to him but I decided to keep them and see what he could do,” Bowman said.
“So he swam and won the race without the goggles just like he did here in the (200) butterfly when his goggles filled with water.”
No-one had won eight gold medals at a single Olympics before Phelps scooped the pool in Beijing. Few believed he could do it but the one man who knew him best never doubted him.
“I’ve always tried to find ways to give him adversity in either meets or practice and have him overcome it,” Bowman said.
“The higher the level of pressure the better Michael performs. As expectations rise he becomes more relaxed....That’s what makes him the greatest.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury