Swimming: Butterfly has flown, but family now floats Phelps' boat

Michael Phelps and his wife, Nicole, who is expecting their third child, take their two sons Boomer and Beckett around their neighbourhood in Paradise Valley, Arizona. In a week when he lost his remaining butterfly world records, the most decorated O
Michael Phelps and his wife, Nicole, who is expecting their third child, take their two sons Boomer and Beckett around their neighbourhood in Paradise Valley, Arizona. In a week when he lost his remaining butterfly world records, the most decorated Olympian has had little trouble letting go of those achievements. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A plaintive voice on the other end of the line was clearly distraught over the loss of a cherished possession.

It was late at night at the world swimming championships in Gwangju, South Korea, but the breakfast hour halfway around the world where Michael Phelps, his pregnant wife, Nicole, and their two sons, Boomer, three, and Beckett, one, were vacationing.

I had phoned the retired swimmer from South Korea for his reaction to losing his 100m butterfly world record to his countryman Caeleb Dressel last month. Kristof Milak, a 19-year-old from Hungary, had shattered Phelps' mark in the 200m butterfly earlier in the meet.

Phelps was once the master of the butterfly. Now, for the first time since 2001, he has no world records in his signature stroke.

But the 34-year-old was not the one in mourning. He spoke with awe about the easy speed of Dressel, though he had to raise his voice to be heard over Boomer, who was very upset about having misplaced his stuffed animal, Baby Monkey.

It was not that long ago Phelps' sense of self was tied up in those records, so his equanimity in their absence seemed worth a closer look.

A week later, he sat down with The New York Times at Paradise Valley Country Club in Arizona to talk about his diminished presence in the record books.

Q You made your first Olympic team in the 200m butterfly, set your first world record in the 200m butterfly. You held the world record in the 200m butterfly for 18 years. Did it feel as if you had lost two family heirlooms when you lost both butterfly records?

A It's just crazy because butterfly was the one stroke that meant the most to me, right? To have them both be gone in the same week was not what I was expecting, by any means. The 200 fly was especially hard because I had that record for more than half my life.

YET TO BE SURPASSED

When I won seven golds at the 2007 meet, I broke five world records. Kristof Milak broke one world record. I broke 39.

Break that record 10 more times. Hold it for 18 years.

MICHAEL PHELPS, retired American swimmer, on longevity and his legacy.

It's frustrating that the records didn't last longer, but I love being able to see kids breaking through. That is awesome. You have to have performances like that in the sport in order to see the sport continue to grow and evolve.

Q You have so many other accomplishments, starting with your record eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Games that nobody is likely ever to surpass. Your body of work, which includes a record 28 Olympic medals, can't be erased in one meet. Is that how you look at it?

A After Caeleb won eight medals in South Korea, I saw a headline that said, "Caeleb Dressel Surpasses Phelps". No, he didn't.

When I won seven golds at the 2007 meet, I broke five world records. Kristof Milak broke one world record. I broke 39.

So keep going. Break that record 10 more times. Hold it for 18 years. It's about longevity.

Q Which memory stands out more, your first Olympic gold medal in the 400m individual medley at the 2004 Olympics, or your 23rd in the 400m medley relay in 2016 in Rio?

A Without question, the last gold medal will stand out more than really any of them just because of the journey and having Booms there. That one for me is personally the most memorable, though it's hard to leave out Beijing.

Q I've heard people say, "Imagine how much better Phelps could have done at the 2016 Olympics if he hadn't had the DUI and other issues that landed him in rehab in 2014". How do you respond?

A Without the lows of 2014, there is no 2016. I would have just tuned out. I would have been like, "Bye, see you later" and I would have moved on.

That DUI (drink driving) was not a good experience but, looking back on it, it made me be able to be where I am today, watching Boomer literally grow up by the minute, and Beckett, too, who is a full parrot right now, repeating everything we say.

Looking back to 10 years ago, or eight, there's no shot in hell I'd ever be able to even be present, be happy, really be enjoying this process of watching these little humans grow up in the world.

Q You said in 2016 that you're not sure you ever swam an Olympic final that didn't include at least one swimmer who was using performance-enhancing drugs. Do you worry about the public's perception of the sport in the wake of controversies swirling around athletes like the Chinese freestyler Sun Yang, who was shunned on the medals podium by a couple of his world championship competitors?

A I've made it really clear how frustrated I am that some people choose to take a short cut and use performance-enhancing drugs instead of putting in the training and the work that it takes to be a champion.

I understand the frustrations of the people taking very public stands. But by focusing on what other people are doing, they're expending a lot of time and energy on something that is out of their control.

There's only one group of people who can really clean up the sport and that's Fina.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2019, with the headline 'Butterfly has flown, but family now floats Phelps' boat'. Print Edition | Subscribe