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Phelps

Photography Getty Images

A Master Stroke

interviewMichael Phelps says he still finds it difficult to step back and reflect on his career – not surprising, because there’s a lot to reflect on. The phenomenal swimmer appeared at five Olympic Games from 2000 to his farewell in 2016 and won 28 Olympic medals plus another 34 at the World Championships. Now retired, Phelps say’s he’s excited about the next chapter of his life

Michael Phelps is only 32 and yet he’s already on his second retirement. But then again, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us because doing things to the extreme is what Phelps does.

The winner of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which were gold, the American swimmer quit the sport after the London Games in 2012 but then endured a difficult time in his personal life. Arrested for a second drink driving offence, Phelps went into rehab in 2014, cleaned up his act and returned with a fresh drive for Rio 2016 where he went out in style, picking up five golds and a silver. Sports fans were familiar with seeing Phelps’ mother Debbie nervously cheering her son in previous Olympics, but sitting next to her in Brazil was Phelps’ wife Nicole Johnson and their son Boomer, born in May 2016. They’re expecting a second child in 2018 and fatherhood is a new, dry land challenge for Phelps.

Definitely retired for good this time, Phelps wants to grow the sport of swimming like his hero Michael Jordan did with basketball in the 1990s. As part of his ambitious plan, he’s signed as an ambassador for Under Armour, the sportswear brand that, like Phelps, is from Baltimore. The Olympic giant spoke at the opening of Under Armour’s new store in The Dubai Mall about family, his remarkable sporting career, and why he was able to compete at such a high level for so long.

“My first retirement taught me a lot,” he says. “My second retirement is exciting.”

Q.

Five Olympic Games and 28 medals. Do you ever sit back and think about your achievements?

A.

My career was always go, go, go and so I’ve never had chance to sit back and take it all in. I don’t know when I will process it. My wife and I went to China recently and I was replaying races in my head from the Beijing Olympics and explaining it to my wife.

Q.

What about your final Olympics in Rio – how do you feel about that period of your career?

A.

The last two or three years of my career were the best. I had the most fun in Rio and that showed I think – I enjoyed it. I finished things exactly how I wanted to, having my family and son there. I hung my suit up the way I wanted to. I never had a ‘what if.’ I did everything my way. But I did have some goals for Rio that I didn’t achieve. They were written on a piece of paper and kept in my wardrobe. I haven’t looked at that piece of paper yet. I’m very hard on myself. I sent my coach a text as a joke after Rio saying, ‘We didn’t accomplish that much in Rio.’ He replied saying, ‘Let it go.’

Q.

Your team mates in Rio must have looked up to you?

A.

I enjoyed it, being a dad and being the old dude on the team. Some of my team mates said to me, ‘I had a poster of you on my wall.’ Hopefully now I can inspire kids in swimming and other sports.

Q.

What were the hardest years for you?

A.

The most challenging was 2008 to 2012. I wasn’t truly engaged and I didn’t want to swim. Recover. Sleep. Eat. It was what I had to do. Nobody saw what happened behind closed doors. For 20 years I did that.

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Q.

Let’s talk about your training. Did you enjoy the daily grind?

A.

Yeah, it excited me every day so it was easy to sacrifice other things. My coach Bob [Bowman] told me that if I took one day off it took two days to get back to where I was. My rivals were taking time off one day a week but I didn’t so I figured I had 52 extra days’ extra training over them.

Q.

Is it true you used to train on Christmas Day?

A.

Yeah, I was in the water on Christmas morning. I wanted to be there. The difference between good and great people is that great people will do things when they don’t want to do things. I didn’t want to go to the pool everyday but I had goals. I forced myself. We called it ‘putting money in the bank’ and then at big swim meets we’d make a withdrawal. I did things to give me a higher chance of winning.

Q.

There were stories back then that you were consuming 12,000 calories per day to fuel your training. Is that true?

A.

I think that’s impossible. I was probably eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day to build muscle and recover. It got to a point where I didn’t want to eat anymore but I was breaking down muscle so I had to. Eating was a job for me. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.

Q.

What’s your training regime like these days?

A.

After Beijing I took six months off and gained 30lbs, but to be the best father and husband I need to get in the gym six days a week; just getting a small sweat is all I need. I did an hour and a half today. Health and wellness are so important in my life and it will continue to be. I think I’m someone who can’t sit still; I think my ADHD kicks in and bounces me off the walls. Talking about mental health is one of the biggest things in my life. I’ve been through depression a handful of times. I’ve been in the darkest place possible and not wanting to be alive but I came through that. Everybody can do it.

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Q.

Let’s turn to your mental preparation for races. Do you think you were strong psychologically?

A.

Yeah, my mental game was pretty good. I prepared myself for how I wanted the race to go. I was prepared for absolutely anything. In the 200m butterfly final at the 2008 Olympics, my goggles filled with water and I swam 175m blind. But I stayed calm.

Q.

What do you miss most from your racing days?

A.

Nothing.

Q.

Really?

A.

The opportunity to represent my country was the best thing in the world and carrying my flag [at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony] was one of the coolest things ever. It still sends chills through my body and I will cherish and remember that forever. I will miss being on the podium, with a gold medal, listening to the national anthem. It will sting not having that anymore.

Q.

How did you handle injury?

A.

My worst injury was the result of my own stupidity. I broke a wrist before the Olympic trials for 2008 when I slipped on some ice. I had a golf ball-sized lump on my wrist and I had surgery. But I was in the water training the next day. I had a trainer who knew me so he helped me to rehab the injury. Whenever I had something that hurt I’d tell my trainer and we’d get ahead of it.

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Q.

We saw you racing against a great white shark recently. What happened there?

A.

The shark beat me! I’m a massive fan of sharks. Really, I am the biggest nerd about the ocean and animals. I swam with seven species of sharks and seeing a 13 feet long hammerhead six inches in front of my face was one of the coolest things I’ve seen.

Q.

Would you like to go free diving with great whites?

A.

It’d be fun, but I don’t think my family would let me. I dove with a guy who’s dived 70 times with sharks and he said they were big teddy bears. I’d love to see orcas in the wild off the coast of New Zealand; it’s really cool to watch creatures in open water.

Q.

Last question: what was your motto during your career?

A.

Don’t. Give. Up. Never, ever, ever give up. I can share hundreds of stories when I wanted to quit swimming from the age of 15 to 25 because I didn’t enjoy it but I had goals, and goals are so important – I believe that 100 per cent. For me to be here today with my accomplishments, I had to have lofty goals and I always wanted more. Nothing else motivated me. I like the Biggie Smalls song, Sky’s The Limit and that is so true. If you want something bad enough, do it. I had big ups and big downs but I believed I wanted to win eight gold medals. People thought I was crazy but I believed that I could achieve it. You have to dream.

END OF INTERVIEW

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