Bowman Blueprint II Already Underway
Craig Lord
The triumphs, tricks and testing times of the coach of the greatest Olympian ever; Bowman's last interview before leaving Beijing for Baltimore

And for my next trick? Time and times will tell: lots of decisions ahead before Bob Bowman greets Michael Phelps home to Baltimore after a break that could stretch until February 1 next year. Unlikely - Phelps can't sit still that long, the coach believes. 

Besides, both mentor and mother of the winner of eight gold medals want a trip to Rome next summer. Michael is their ticket, so the pressure's on. Sort of. "It'll be like his welcome back meet, a little like Montreal (2005)," said Bowman in his last interview before leaving Beijing.

Speaking at the Casa Italia to SwimNews The Times and The Australian, Bowman revealed a little of what we can expect from Phelps: "He will definitely be swimming backstroke and he's going to branch out into the sprint events as well. You'll see him do breaststroke but not at this [Olympic] sort of level. In national events." One thing he won't be doing: chasing Thorpey's 400m free record. But the 200m butterfly is in for a bashing - as a priority.

Phelps's goggles filled up with water in the 200m butterfly and left him struggling to find best form. The result was still a world record of 1:52.03. But Bowman says that might have been "in the 1:50s and if he takes a shot at it on its own [beyond the multi-event programme] it could be 1:49." Imagine that. 

Not long after Bowman spoke at the Casa Italia, Phelps was being mobbed by Chinese fans and tracked by the constant craving of cameras over at the China Club, the very beautiful, most Chinese temporary home of one of his sponsors, Omega. As stylish as their watches. Clockwork luxury. The perfect image for a swimming who times things to perfection. The offers are flooding in and the folk at Octagon, the agent for Phelps and Bowman, will need more than eight arms to cope. They are talking Tiger Woods. No surprise.

None either when Bowman talks of keeping the 100m butterfly on the list of targets - 50.58 in Beijing but Bowman believes a sub-50 is possible. easier too in a world without the 400m medley: coach will honour the deal he struck with his charge, although there would be room for improvement even on a 4:03.84, he said: "When he did his breaststroke to freestyle turn, he did no dolphin kicks, so there was a flaw there, it could have been better. If he did the dolphin kicks he would have been another body-length ahead."

It is what you might expect of a psychology graduate and deep thinker, who helped to build the perfect competitive beast of the pool since Michael was 11. A Machiavellian grin breaking out on his face, Bowman, revealed the terrible truth: "At the Melbourne World Cup in 2003 I stepped on his goggles - deliberately. He said 'hey, someone stepped on my goggles'. I said 'Oh ... well, you're just gonna have to go without them'."

When the scrawny, gangly boy raced at his first national junior meet in the United State, 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 Beijing] in the (200) butterfly when his goggles filled with water."

Bowman added: "I've always tried to find ways to give him adversity in either meets or practice and have him overcome it," said the coach. He took Phelps, 14, to an evening competition and asked the driver to turn up late – on purpose. "That way there was no dinner – he had to deal with it," said Bowman with a chuckle.

"He's used to handling pressure situations in training, where that pressure comes from me," Bowman said. "We have often put him in a situation where practice is not over until he achieves a certain time. Things have to be done absolutely correctly or we do them over."

Bowman learned some of his tricks and tactics from former Britain performance director Bill Sweetenham. "I was at the AIS when Bill was there training a squad of juniors. After one session, they all complained that the water in the water fountain was too hot. So the next day, there was no water fountain." It had been removed. 

In Phelps, Bowman found the raw materials that he had been looking for at the North Baltimore Swim Club. "He was so fast, he had to swim with older swimmers ... but by the end of the practice, and at the most difficult part of the 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."

Instead, Bowman piled on the metres and challenges. After one particularly bruising practice, Phelps leapt out of the water and started throwing water at some of the girls watching nearby. “I said 'you should be very tired, that's the hardest practice you've ever done',” Bowman recalled. "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."

He took Phelps to junior meets where “he would race three times in the morning, three in the afternoon and then I’d say to him, ‘that’s not quite right, you could go again’. Every time he got out and said ‘I’m tired’, I said ‘no, no, look, let’s just try that again, go on now’, and every time he’d get back in and go again.” 

He also had a built-in clock. Bowman asked him to write down the times he wanted to achieve in three favourite races. "He was just 11 but six months later he swam those exact times, to the one-hundredth of a second," Bowman recalled. "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." As we discovered at the Water Cube.

Bowman's role has been pivotal, critical even: 12 years of emotional, mental and physical preparation of a kind that few could have withstood. Time swims of 10km and hour-long sessions chucking a medicine ball back and forth have combined with Phelps's ability to disappear to a place where he needs to be to get the return he seeks.

Bowman noted that Phelps "can focus like no other athlete". The example he gave also explained an incident that was reported as "Phelps stares down Cavic". He did no such thing, it turns out. "If you were watching the 100m butterfly final, the Serbian swimmer and Michael were facing each other standing behind the blocks and it looked like they were trying to stare each other down. After the race I asked Michael if that was what he was doing, and he said 'I didn't even know he was there'. That's how focused Michael is on what he wants to do."

There are moments when things do not go according to plan, of course. The 200m butterfly and the goggles was one. And there are moments that need Bowman to step in and coach hand son in the middle of a big meet. The only time that happened in Beijing was on the day that Phelps faced the 200m medley - job done but the swimmer returned "totally drained" for the first time that week - and the 100m butterfly semi-final. "I had to talk him through that. He was really tired at that point. I wasn't sure how it was going to go," said Bowman.

Phelps put in a fantastic second 50m and a day later stood up for a final that Bowman thought might leave the score at seven. "The biggest moment of relief for me was after the 100m butterfly [final]. I'd myself convinced that seven was the number. It wasn't until the last 15m [butterfly] that I thought maybe it [eight] would happen. One thing Michael does better than anyone else is to use the right amount of emotional energy for every race he stands up for."

When Phelps returns from London 2012 promos, golf in the Algarve, the Superbowl and a 101 other commitments and catch-ups of varied kinds, Octagon will be ready with a plan that will have to leave swimming at the top of the heap. Bowman explained: "They know that without the swimming there's no more money, that's the key to Michael's success." And success is what he would seek if he stays in the game. "It would be nice to have Michael retire on top. It's important to me that he doesn't peter out."

And with that, Bowman was off, back to building a new home in Baltimore, setting up shop and waiting for the return of a man who this time round starts the season, whenever that may be, as the greatest Olympian in history, a man who transcends his sport. The same might well be said of Bowman.