Michael Phelps – The Making Of A Champion

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2016 Year In Review edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

Michael Phelps and Rory Connell were well ahead of the other 10-year-olds in the 200-meter freestyle at the 1996 Eastern Zone Championships. Neck-and-neck, the two standout age groupers pushed farther and farther ahead of their competitors. Chasing Chas Morton’s National Age Group mark of 2:00.70 — one that was thought to be unbreakable — they turned to come home for their final 25. Connell edged in front of Phelps to win the race in 2:00.75, while Phelps touched second, in 2:00.88.

Connell stood on top of the podium, Phelps on the platform to his side, awaiting his silver medal. Connell recalled Anita Nall, a 1992 Olympian who trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club with Phelps’ older sister Whitney, handed out the medals. Someone took a photograph of Phelps and Connell on the podium.

Six years later, both Connell and Phelps competed at the 2001 U.S. Open in Long Island, New York. A lot had changed since ’96 — Phelps had one Olympics under his belt and was the world record-holder and defending world champion in the 200-meter butterfly.

Far from their childhood rivalry which faded shortly after the ‘96 zones meet, Phelps and Connell raced in one event, the 200 butterfly. Phelps finished second to Tom Malchow, as they both went under Mel Stewart’s U.S. Open and meet record. Connell finished seventh in that final, and after the race he spoke to his childhood rival.

“I brought with me to that meet a picture from that 10-and-under zones meet where I was on the first-place podium and he was on the second one,” Connell said with a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to rib him — I just thought it was funny that I found this kind of keepsake.”

Connell asked Phelps to sign it, but Phelps “did not give in.”

“He wasn’t rude about it, but it might have been something along the lines of, ‘Man I can’t believe you have that. No thanks!” Connell said. “I think that race stuck with him and became a motivational point throughout the rest of the years in terms of having that strong desire of not ever wanting to lose again and not liking that taste of defeat.”

While Phelps had just come off his first world championship victory and was on top of the world, the photograph was a reminder that at one time, however briefly, he wasn’t invincible — he was just another swimmer in the next lane.

*      *     *

THE BEGINNING: FEELING THE WATER

Cathy Lears (now Cathy Lears Bennett) would walk up and down the deck of the pool at Towson High School while a young Phelps splashed around and caused trouble. He’d ask for bathroom breaks repeatedly, and did everything in his power to do anything but what he was supposed to do there: swim.

“Michael, I know that you don’t really want to be here, but your mother wants you to be here,” Lears recalled saying to Phelps. “She and I are friends. We’re going to make it work.”

About nine years before Phelps would touch the wall second in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, securing his spot on the Sydney Olympic team, Phelps was just a little kid with a “discipline problem” in Lears’ stroke clinic. Phelps joined around the same time his other sister, Hilary, joined NBAC.

Debbie Phelps, Michael’s mother, signed him up for Lears’ clinic after he had taken swim lessons from Lears the summer before. What hadn’t been apparent then was that he was afraid of the water.

“When we were going to the next level, everybody thought he could swim because he was comfortable and he could play around,” Lears said. “At the end of the day, when you had to be in deep water all the time and had to be swimming a decent amount, he was not good.”

Lears allowed Phelps to swim on his back until he got more comfortable with putting his face in the water.

“The aha moment came when he went, ‘Oh my gosh, I understand this water. This is great. It feels great on my body. I can do this. I can be in this water,’” Lears said. “I watched his curiosity — he has a great ability to experiment and to be curious about what he can do. He did that as a young child when he was learning to swim.”

As Phelps quickly developed, he was moved up to Patty Stevens’ group and was training about twice a week. At the time his older sisters were achieving plenty of success at NBAC, while he was just the little brother.

Phelps was moved up to Keith Schertle’s group when he was 8-years-old.

“He was like so many of the little kids,” Schertle said. “He didn’t like it a lot. He didn’t want to be at practice. He’d rather be doing something else.”

Phelps was training with a group of 8- to 11-year-olds, so he had plenty of swimmers a few years older to push him. Although Schertle remembers Phelps didn’t exactly love the pool, he remembers him loving one thing in particular: winning.

“That’s when he started to have some success,” Schertle said. “Little kids like coming when they’re winning, and he was a pretty darn good 8-year-old.”

Winning transformed Phelps’ love of the pool — he couldn’t get enough of it.

“He liked to go first. Michael was one of the younger ones, so he didn’t always get to go first, and he would get kind of like you see now,” Schertle said with a chuckle. “A mean face, which meant he was going to push his limits more to get to the front of the line.”

While Michael was just beginning his journey in the pool, his sisters were swimming at a high level. Whitney was 14 when Michael joined Schertle’s group, and she had finished the previous season ranked 10th in the nation for her age in the 200-meter butterfly. And Michael was always around the pool, just soaking it all in.

“You had a feeling that coming from the same stock, he was also going to be a very good swimmer,” Schertle said.

By the end of his first year in Schertle’s group, Michael broke eight 8-and-under NBAC records, six of which still stand. Phelps was one of the best swimmers his age in the country, but at 8 years old, that thought didn’t cross his mind.

“He liked to win,” Schertle said. “I don’t think he noticed at the time that he was first in the country. What we would notice is that he was first in the pool.”

He was already developing the competitiveness that the world would one day see as a Phelps’ trademark, and emerging as a top competitor in the U.S. With Schertle, he got faster and faster.

THE DEVELOPMENT: A TASTE FOR WINNING

During the winter of 1995, Phelps put up the fastest short course 50 fly of the season for 10-and-unders with a time of 28.79. He was ranked fifth in the 100 fly at 1:03.96, just 0.09 seconds behind fourth-ranked Milorad Cavic, who would battle Phelps 13 years later in a historic 100-meter butterfly final at the Olympics.

Although Phelps was otherwise a normal kid in Schertle’s group, some details about him stood out. In addition to his love of winning, Phelps’s body gave way to his swimming potential.

“Even at that young age he had the makings of the body he has now,” Schertle said. “He was long and lanky, didn’t have much control of his body, but had a real good feel.”

A good feel of the water is a crucial element to success in swimming, allowing a swimmer to understand what makes them move faster and how to move through and with the water. This translates to stroke efficiency — something that many young athletes lack, especially in the more physically demanding stroke disciplines, such as the butterfly.

That feel of the water allowed Phelps to be better than most in fly.

“He could hold stroke in butterfly, and I thought that was pretty cool for a little kid,” Schertle said. “He could swim butterfly in the long course pool, and because of his arms at that age, he could hold that stroke for the length of the 50, the length of the 100.”

Phelps’ success got him moved up to Tom Himes’ group. Himes, the head age-group coach for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, coached a group of kids ages 10 to 16.

While Phelps wasn’t yet 10, he was faster than many of the older kids in Himes’s group. However, Himes looked at Phelps for who he was rather than for the times he was putting down. Himes described 9-and-a-half-year-old Phelps as “a goofy little kid.”

That goofy little kid ended that 1994-95 season as one of the best — ranked top-10 in the nation for 10-and-unders in seven long course events. His fly was miles ahead of his competitors, especially his 100.

Schertle remembers one of those races, a 1:10.48 performance that Phelps threw down at NBAC’s home meet in June — a race that resembles almost every 100 fly that Phelps has swum in his storied career.

“His first 50 was good,” Schertle said. “The average young swimmer’s going to fall off some on the second 50, so when he went out on the first 50 I think he was with one or two other kids. In a number of strokes off that first wall, he wasn’t with anyone. It was all him by the end, with the competition behind his feet.”

Come-from-behind victories became a staple in Phelps’ career, as did defeating his competitors by over a body length. Hilary laughed when she was reminded about the swim.

“We were talking about that when he was swimming at a World Championships and he won by half a body length or a body length, and we were like, ‘He’s been doing this since he was 10,’” she said.

While Michael was establishing himself as the best butterflier his age in the nation, Whitney ended the 1994-95 season as the third-best 200 flyer in the world at just 14 years old, earning a bronze medal at the 1995 Pan American Games in Atlanta.

The Phelps kids were known at North Baltimore, and despite Michael’s success, his sister Whitney was the talk of the club. She was a positive role model for Michael, someone who was able to expose him to elite competition, somebody who could make him realize that competing at international competition wasn’t just a pipe dream, it was something that was realistic and could be accomplished.

THE PHELPS FAMILY: KEEPING EVERYBODY AFLOAT

The Phelps family revolved around swimming. Whitney was now a favorite to make the 1996 Olympic team, Michael was starting to emerge as the best swimmer his age in the country, Hilary was getting ready to apply for colleges with swimming scholarships a definite option, and both of their parents were involved in the sport.

Fred Phelps, a Maryland state trooper, was a USA Swimming official. Debbie Phelps, who worked in education, was the zone team director for Maryland Swimming LSC. While the kids were excelling at swimming, it was a family effort to keep everything afloat.

“We all supported everybody in everything that we did, so I think that was something that he got at an early age was that everyone supported one another, everyone helped out where they could,” Hilary said. “Our parents would take us to practice. My dad would drive me to the early-morning practice, and my mom would get Whitney and Michael ready for school, then my mom would take me to my afternoon double, my dad would take Whitney and Michael home and get them dinner. It was a really collaborative effort.”

While the group effort was the best-case scenario in getting all of the kids fed, to school, and to practice, it took its toll on Debbie and Fred’s marriage. They divorced in 1994.

Hilary and Whitney became like a second and third mother to Michael and helped to raise him during and after the divorce.

“The three of us were very close,” Hilary said of her siblings. “Since they were closer in age, I remember Whitney would make breakfast sometimes for him, and the joke was that she put cinnamon in his eggs and wouldn’t tell him ‘til later. She’d experiment with all this stuff, and he would just eat whatever.”

In Himes’ group, Phelps trained with Erin Lears (now Richardson), Cathy Lear’s daughter. Debbie’s children lined up in age with Cathy’s, and they became very close, especially Michael and Erin.

“We were both the third kid in our family,” Richardson said. “My sister swam a lot and his sister swam a lot, so we came along for the ride. We were always in a car or we were always swimming — we didn’t get much of a life of our own because we were following in their footsteps.”

The families would often celebrate holidays together, go to the beach together during the summer, and generally spend time together at the pool.

While Phelps was one of the youngest in Himes’ group, he had Richardson to lean on, and the two developed a friendship that remained strong for many years.

Richardson said their friendship was “uncomplicated” and based on “100 percent support of each other.”

Both Michael and Erin looked up to the swimmers whom their older siblings hung out with, such as Bradley Schertle, Keith Schertle’s son, who is a year older than Michael. Bradley was another NBAC standout, though the two never trained in the same group.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I think Michael was raised by that village. A lot of it was Debbie, Hilary, and Whitney, and then the other kids around them. Michael was a pool rat in the strongest sense,” said Bradley.

Keith said he remembers Michael being surrounded by these older athletes.

“The Phelps house was a place that a lot of kids would congregate,” Keith said. “I remember one time in particular Tom kicked all of us out of practice — we were having a bad workout. We still had an hour and a half left in practice, so most of the kids in the group walked to Debbie’s house because it was less than a mile away, and Whitney got kicked out of practice, too.”

Whitney and Beth Botsford, a girl in her training group, were prime examples of the positive influence the older athletes had on Michael, Erin, and the other kids in NBAC. The two were primed to make the 1996 Olympic team. (Botsford won two gold medals.)

“We were looking up to them,” Richardson said. “A lot of them were fast at that time. Having someone go to the Olympics was expected — and an expected goal of yours. I remember when I was really little, I told a reporter that after Anita Hall went to the Olympics I would probably go two times. It was so ingrained in us that it was kind of normal that everyone wanted to shoot for the stars here.”

Being around that environment of excellence at NBAC worked wonders for Phelps as he entered the 1995-96 season in Himes’s group.

A CHAMPION UNLEASHED: MICHAEL PHELPS EMERGES

Phelps was dedicated, talented, and 100 percent competitive in the pool, which made him one of the best athletes in the group, despite being one of the youngest.

“He was definitely a little on the special side,” said Himes. “He had the natural talent there, but ultimately his work ethic got him to where he was at.”

In the lead-up to the 1996 Eastern Zone Championships, Phelps shined at practice. He swam a 500-yard freestyle kick in under six minutes — a time that even 20 years later would place him among the fastest 500 yard freestyle swimmers at that age.

It was evident that he was good, but Phelps was still a 10-year-old boy.

“He cried a lot,” Himes said with a laugh. “I guess at some points he was hard on himself when he didn’t do things that he thought he could do. He was very sensitive. Other than being better than anyone else, he was pretty normal in the way he thought and what he tried to do.”

Himes said that Phelps’ abilities were great as were his efforts, but one thing that stood out was his practice attendance. “He was there all the time,” Himes said.

Phelps’s attendance, effort, and abilities led him to his first NAG record. He traveled with the rest of the NBAC group to Atlanta to compete in an invitational meet.

Himes described it as Phelps’s first “wow” meet. Lears was a chaperone on the trip and also remembers Phelps’s dominance.

“He was a rockstar,” Lears said. “He was winning everything.”

Phelps broke his first NAG record with an incredible 1:08.54 in the long course 100m butterfly. He swam multiple events that weekend, competing like an older swimmer with more focus and maturity — but once the meet was over, he was back to being the goofy boy that those who knew him remembered.

Phelps had just broken a record, but it seemed the only thing on his mind was food.

The NBAC swimmers were exhausted after days of prelims and finals in a different city. Lears ordered pizza for the approximately 90 kids, with plenty to go around. She told them to get what they wanted, but not to grab a whole box of pizza.

But what did an energy-filled, 10-year-old Michael Phelps do?

“I remember saying, ‘Michael!’ and he burst into tears,” Lears said. “He was exhausted. When I look back at it I think, ‘Man, the kid was swimming way beyond his age, way beyond anything. He was exhausted. He probably hadn’t been on a trip like this before — yikes, did you really have to yell at him for taking a whole box of pizza? He was probably hungry!’”

As the 1996 Eastern Zone Championships at Princeton University got closer, Phelps honed in on his skills. His mental skills were progressing day in and day out, too. He was focusing and learning how to expel any doubts or limitations.

“He still exists in the same way,” Himes said. “If he thought somebody thought he couldn’t do something, or somebody thought they were going to beat him, that’s when he got the most fired up. He’s still the same.”

Phelps’s biggest competition there was 10-year-old Connell from Wilmington Aquatic Club in Delaware. Representing Delaware swimming, Connell was fast.

“He was wearing this ratty, ratty Baltimore Orioles Hat,” Connell said of Phelps. “I don’t know how he could have worn it to shreds being so young. He was only 10 years old. Must’ve been the only hat he wore. The fabric was all tearing off the brim. He loved his Orioles so he wore that hat to death. I remember him wearing that hat all meet long, pulled down, the brim all bent down. You can’t even really see his eyes when he’s walking around with that thing.”

But Phelps attacked the competition with a maturity not seen in athletes his age. He’d play cards and listen to music with Richardson and the other NBAC swimmers, but come race time, Phelps was all focus.

“He was in his own mind … focused on the task a little bit further out of the actual race taking place than I was,” Connell said.

“When it got time to get on the blocks, that boy had game,” said Bradley. “He was ready to go.”

Phelps ended up winning several events and breaking his first short course NAG record there. He won the 100-yard backstroke in 1:02.21 that tied Chas Morton’s record, to the one-hundredth of a second.

That meet was the breakthrough between Phelps as a kid and Phelps as a champion.

He ended that season ranked first in three short course events and three long course events.

A CHAMPION REVEALED: PUT ON THE PATH TO GLORY

Phelps swam one more season with Himes before switching to Bob Bowman’s group two weeks before his 11th birthday. From there, Phelps honed his skills and improved every year under Bowman’s tutelage, becoming the greatest Olympian of all time.

The competitor Phelps was at age 10, however, is similar to the one he is now and has been throughout his career. The focus, the determination, the willingness to push the limits to win — all truly emerged at the 1996 Eastern Zone Championships.

Phelps improved every day he spent at the pool — to pinpoint the moment Phelps became the champion he is today is near impossible — but without a doubt that meet sticks out as one in which Phelps competed as he would at the Olympic Games four years later and in the remainder of his career.

“You could tell something was there,” Himes said. “Honestly, could I tell there was something like what turned out to be? No, I can’t tell you that.”

As Phelps got better and time passed, Richardson told him, “When you break your first world record, don’t forget to call me.”

Although it was his second world record, when Phelps’ broke the 200-meter butterfly world record on July 24, 2001, and became the youngest world champion in the history of the sport at 15 years and 9 months all the way over in Fukuoka, Japan, he called the Lears family home in Baltimore at what they remember was 2 a.m.

“My mom came and woke me up to say, ‘You’re never going to believe this,’” Richardson said.

The landscape of their friendship had changed, just as Phelps’s life has, but on the phone was the same 10-year-old boy Richardson had grown up with — the same 10-year-old champion excited about his win and looking for his next.

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Drewbrewsbeer
5 months ago

Very detailed backstory!

Tea rex
5 months ago

I swam at some of those same zone meets. It’s crazy how Phelps just kept getting better. I thought the future star at those meets was a guy named Andy Bauman – same events, but more speed. He was also well over 6’ as a 12 year old. I think he swam in college but never made NCAAs or anything. So many of the 10 and 12 year old NAG record holders are early bloomers, and not many folks on the national team were NAG holders at 10. Its like Phelps started ahead of everyone, but just kept getting faster and faster.

Jay Ryan
5 months ago

Anita Nall from North Baltimore (typo, not “Hall” in case she’s watching)

About Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile

Mitch worked for 5-years with SwimSwam news as a web producer focusing on both Canadian and international content. He coached for Toronto Swim Club for four seasons as a senior coach focusing on the development of young swimmers. Mitch is an NCCP level 2 certified coach in Canada and an ASCA Level …

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