This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 18 Body Issue. Subscribe today.
Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
Snakes. For as long as Michael Phelps can remember, he's hated snakes. As a little boy, he picked up a rock in his parents' front yard and found a hissing, slithering snake. He was so traumatized that for decades the memory would replay in nightmares that left him shaking, sweating and unable to fall back to sleep. Friends and family weren't even allowed to say the word "snake" in his presence.
Yet in October 2014, when instructed in art therapy to draw a fearful image from his childhood, Phelps drew that moment he could never escape. It was a testament to how far he had come at The Meadows, a psychological trauma and addiction treatment center about an hour northwest of Phoenix.
Phelps entered The Meadows five days after his second DUI arrest on Sept. 30, 2014. In those five days, he barely left his room, ate or slept. But he kept drinking. "He sounded terrible," longtime coach Bob Bowman says. "Barely coherent." Upon his arrival, Phelps texted his mother, Debbie, and Bowman telling them it was the most scared he had ever felt. He trembled at the thought of sharing his inner demons with strangers. Two years earlier in London, he'd cemented his status as an Olympic god, but at what cost?
Phelps' issues centered largely on his complicated relationships with two of the most influential men in his life -- the one who had been there for him and the one who pretty much hadn't. Phelps' parents divorced when he was 9, and he'd long felt abandoned by his father, Fred. The pool was his escape, and Bowman was a surrogate father of sorts. In the water, he pushed him to perform. Outside the water, he taught him how to drive and knot a tie.
Eventually, Phelps realized that all the Olympic medals in the world couldn't ease his pain -- and instead made life more complicated. By 2014, he was approaching 30, lost, with no identity beyond that of a champion swimmer. He self-medicated and wondered whether his was a life worth living. "I didn't give a s---," Phelps says. "I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do -- just end my life."
But after his arrest, family and friends persuaded Phelps to get help. Here was his chance, they told him, to face the issues he had avoided for so long. That first day at The Meadows, he barely spoke to anyone. He ate alone and cried himself to sleep. But gradually, he opened up and began to understand his snake nightmares.
It actually all made perfect sense.
ON A CLOUDLESS, sun-splashed January morning at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex at Arizona State University, Bowman stands under a canopy, the steam from his coffee fading into the air above. Nine months earlier, Bowman left the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to take the head-coaching job at ASU. On this morning, Phelps and nine other Olympic hopefuls push themselves up and down the 50-meter pool, their eyes set on the U.S. Olympic trials (which begin Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska) and ultimately Rio de Janeiro.
Phelps is a virtual lock to make the U.S. team for Rio and become the first American male swimmer to compete in five Olympics. If he wins gold at age 31 (his birthday is June 30), he would become the oldest gold medalist in Olympic swimming history. Ryan Lochte (32) and Matt Grevers (31) could join him in Rio. But Rio is about far more than Phelps adding to his legacy. It's the next step toward achieving the same peace and balance on land as he's had in the water.
This morning, Bowman pays only half attention to warm-ups as he tries to explain his relationship with Phelps over the previous two decades. It had all been a secret for so long; not anymore. The pair met in 1996, when Bowman came to North Baltimore on his way to veterinary school. Bowman planned to quit coaching after a pair of Olympic hopefuls left him before the Atlanta Games, but North Baltimore's Murray Stephens offered him $30,000 to coach for one more season. That's when he ran into an 11-year-old Phelps. Everything changed.
Even in the beginning, coaching Michael Phelps wasn't easy. He was diagnosed at age 9 with ADHD and can be stubborn, hardheaded, isolated, unforgiving and ruthless. "I prefer complex," Bowman says. But those are the same traits that can breed greatness. Bowman was equally dogged, the rare individual who refused to back down from Phelps, even if the swimmer was throwing a water bottle at his head or "MF"-ing him in front of the rest of the team. The dynamic was simple. Bowman pushed Phelps. Phelps pushed back. Bowman pushed even more. Eventually, someone snapped.
"They would go at it, and nothing would stop them," says Allison Schmitt, another North Baltimore swimmer. "There was nothing you could do but watch. It was like a soap opera."
The stories of their many fights are legendary. At the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center, where Phelps trained, there's still a massive dent in a door frame, courtesy of Bowman's right foot after one of their arguments. A trainer has the cracked stopwatch Bowman once chucked at a wall in disgust. And no one will soon forget the time Bowman and Phelps both peeled out of the Meadowbrook parking lot in a testosterone-filled "Days of Thunder"-like rage, middle fingers fully extended.
The way they handled themselves at times was embarrassing.
- Debbie Phelps, on Michael and Bowman
"The way they handled themselves at times was embarrassing," Debbie Phelps says.
In 2010, a screaming match in baggage claim at Baltimore-Washington International Airport ended with Bowman imploring Phelps to swim somewhere else. Bowman says Phelps didn't go to practice for days. "I thought he was gone," Bowman says. "Then he showed up like nothing happened."
Bowman says training sessions often went one of three ways: Phelps would misbehave, undermine Bowman's instructions or be so focused and dominant that he would demoralize everyone else. And god forbid Bowman show excessive attention to any of his other swimmers. "If there is anybody he thought I liked or might take one ounce of attention away from him, they were on death watch forever," Bowman says.
Bowman tried to arrive at the pool before any of his athletes, often before 5 a.m. On weekends, Phelps would try to beat him. "And if he ever did, it was, 'Well, I'm here before you -- don't you know the coach should be here before the athlete?'" Bowman says. "I'd be like, 'OK, Michael. That's Bob 5,028 and Michael 2. When you even it up, let me know.'"
Even today, the edgy banter remains. At one January workout, Phelps asks Bowman for his time after completing a set. Bowman doesn't have it. "See the s--- I have to deal with?" Phelps says, grinning. A few days earlier, Bowman missed a training session -- a rare occurrence -- because he was sick. He says Phelps texted him: "If I would have known you weren't going to coach me I would have just stayed in Baltimore." Bowman didn't take it as a joke.
"Only he would do that," Bowman says. "Everybody else is worried, 'Oh my god, Bob never misses a practice.' And that's his message to me. And he means it. It's kind of this egocentric thing."
Not until Bowman arrived in Ann Arbor in 2005 to coach the University of Michigan swim team did he fully understand the dynamic. Phelps enrolled there soon after Bowman arrived, and Greg Harden, Michigan's director of athletic counseling, met with both men regularly. He was the peacemaker, once suggesting to Bowman that perhaps when Michael was picking fights with his coach that he subconsciously was fighting with his dad. "So whenever he felt threatened or frustrated or whatever, he'd turn me into Fred and yell at me," Bowman says. "It took me awhile to realize that."
The more Bowman understood, the more sympathetic he felt. For Phelps, success brought isolation. He had no peers, no place where he could fit in and act like everyone else his age. He grew up staring at a black line in the pool, maturing slower than his peers and eventually seeking refuge from the eyeballs that stuck to him everywhere he went. But the nature of training for the Olympics doesn't allow much planning for the emotional aftermath. And even if it did, no one could have prepared Phelps for his level of success.
"Maybe it was wrong to push him so hard to do these things," Bowman says. "But I don't think so. He looks back on that stuff with pride. But I do feel like along the way, we probably didn't spend enough attention to the other sides of him."
After winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Phelps went on a global tour of interviews, meet-and-greets and red carpets. On his first day away from all that, he was photographed smoking from a bong at a party in South Carolina. The photograph went viral. He was suspended by USA Swimming for three months. After the world championships in 2009, Phelps' drinking, partying and rebelling ways became worse. Each day at Meadowbrook, Bowman's eyes would bounce from the clock to the front door and back, wondering whether Phelps would show.
"It was awful," Bowman says. "I'd yell at him, handle it poorly. And he'd just miss more. He'd go to Vegas. He'd do this or do that. Then he'd feel guilty, come back and train pretty hard. We kept doing this dance."
Phelps wanted to quit but felt he couldn't because of sponsorship obligations. "I had to go another four years. There was no other option," he says. "I thought I could fake it. Just do a little bit and fake my way through it. And I almost did."
Phelps and Bowman, who shared an agent, were tied together as coach and athlete through sponsorships and endorsements as well. Yet their relationship had deteriorated to the point where Phelps would change his airline seat whenever his reservation was booked next to Bowman's. Communication away from the pool took place through Words With Friends. When Phelps participated, Bowman knew they were in a good place. When he didn't, he knew they weren't.
"It was like Goldman Sachs, too big to fail, right?" Bowman says. "I wanted to teach him a lesson and let him suffer. But now we can't because he's like a national treasure, so we have to keep doing this."
By the summer of 2012, no one hated swimming more than Michael Phelps. And no one despised coaching more than Bob Bowman. Somehow, they managed to keep it all a secret outside of Phelps' innermost circle. "We went into [London] like everything was under control. Yeah, right. It was all spin. Or PR," Bowman says. "We're very good, well-trained at PR. And honestly, for his future, that's the way it had to be."
With Debbie and his sisters in the stands, Phelps somehow still won six medals in London, including four golds. London ended with a hug and a "good job," and then the two men went their separate ways. Phelps retired. Bowman left coaching. But a year later, Phelps told Bowman he wanted to come back. "I wanted no part," Bowman says. "I didn't want to go through that again."
Phelps convinced Bowman that this time would be different. The coach also thought a return to the pool might help the swimmer stay out of trouble. But that fall, Phelps was arrested and charged with DUI. "When that happened, I was like, 'That's it -- you're never going to change,'" Bowman says. "And I was scared to death what the rest of his life was going to look like."
FRED PHELPS couldn't believe what he was hearing. As the words came through the phone that September morning, a chill came over him. A friend had called to tell him that his son had been arrested on suspicion of DUI. The details were horrifying: driving 84 mph in the narrow, 45 mph, no-passing-allowed Fort McHenry Tunnel; registering 0.14 on a blood-alcohol test, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 in Maryland. Michael pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months of probation, which he completed Sunday. It was his second DUI in 10 years; the first came in 2004.
"It scared the living hell out of me," Fred says. "He could have been dead."
After the phone call, Fred texted Michael. "It wasn't received well," Fred says. "It pissed him off. So he withdrew."
This had been the story of Michael and Fred for all these years. A father trying to reconnect with his son and a son who simply wasn't interested. They were more similar than either chose to admit -- both of them stubborn, hardheaded and unforgiving. Fred was a former college football player and a Maryland state trooper for 28 years before moving to an administrative role. He lived in a black-and-white world of right and wrong. Before Michael's rise to stardom, their relationship, even after the divorce, was pretty typical for a father and son. They'd fish in Maryland reservoirs and attend Orioles games, with Fred using his connections to get Michael into the clubhouse where he once met Cal Ripken Jr. "He'd come out of there carrying autographed bats and wristbands and pictures," Fred says. "Those were the things I was able to do for him, things you figure a father should be doing."
Both of Michael's older sisters had kept in touch with their father, but as Michael's popularity grew, he wanted less to do with his dad. Debbie believed it was her son's way of protecting her. To this day, Michael won't say a bad word about his mother, who went back to school after the divorce and became an academic administrator to help support the family. She never remarried. "My ex-husband loved his kids. He loves his kids," Debbie says. "It bothered him. But I don't think he knew how to fix it. So Michael just kept on escalating and escalating and things were going OK, so he didn't feel like he needed his dad."
Fred had served as an official on the deck for many of Michael's meets. At one point in 2008, Michael agreed to meet with his dad but then blew it off. "I just didn't want to," Phelps says. "At times, I was like, 'This is a really good idea.' And we'd text and then I'd just stop texting and asking myself, 'What am I doing? Why? I don't want that. I don't need that.'" On another occasion, Michael's sisters brought him to lunch with his dad. He sat through the meal without saying a word. "I kept trying and trying, but he always had something to do," Fred says.
Fred is sharing his side of the story in the lobby of a hotel just outside BWI Airport. He rarely does interviews and agreed to speak in this case only because Michael asked him to at ESPN's request. But there are nerves, anxiety. Fred doesn't want his words twisted or turned in any way to further complicate his relationship with his son. "It's just not something I will tolerate," Fred explains. "We've come too far."
The erosion of a father-son relationship is never as simple as one or two incidents. But there are two moments in particular that bothered Michael. In 2003, Michael says, Fred promised to show up for a meet at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but never did. That day, Phelps set his first short-course U.S. record. Three years earlier in Sydney, at Michael's first Olympics, Fred deeply upset Michael when on the first day after competition, he pulled Michael aside to introduce him to his new wife. No one in the family had known that Fred had remarried.
The kid just did the Olympics. He did pretty well.
- Bob Bowman
"The kid just did the Olympics," Bowman says. "He did pretty well. Here is the first day where he can just enjoy being there and he has this dumped on him? Michael was a basket case. He couldn't deal with it."
Phelps and his father didn't speak much after Sydney. But Fred continued to follow Michael's career. In Athens in 2004, he cried from 30 feet away when Michael received his first Olympic gold medal. Four years later, he watched most of his son's astonishing performance in Beijing from a Maryland hospital, where his second wife was fighting cancer. (She later died.) "Anywhere or anytime it was on, I was watching," Fred says. "Really, that was the only way I could see him."
While Debbie became a magnet for television cameras with her emotional reactions to Michael's victories, Fred stayed in the background. Reporters called and knocked on his door. He turned them all away. He and Michael had the same name -- Michael Fred Phelps. Strangers would see Fred's ID or credit card and ask whether he was related to the Olympic champion. Sometimes he admitted it was his son -- until they started asking for autographs. "It was just -- you gotta be s---tin' me," Fred says.
BY THE SECOND DAY of his arrival at The Meadows, Phelps began to thaw. Patients invited him to play volleyball, and he began to make friends he still talks to today. That second night, while watching Monday Night Football, he read on the bottom of the screen that USA Swimming had suspended him from competition for six months and had taken away his opportunity to compete at the world championships. Some of the patients stared. No one knew how to react. Phelps broke the tension. "Yep," he said. "That's me." He started talking about what happened. And that night he made a pledge that the world would see him for who he was, not what they wanted him to be. "People kind of built me up as the all-American boy," he says now. "Perfect, no mistakes, this and that. But that wasn't me, you know? I wanted people to get to know the real me."
In treatment, Phelps earned the nickname Preacher Mike because each day began with a chapter of "The Purpose Driven Life," a book given to him by former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and good friend Ray Lewis. Phelps shared the lessons of each day's reading with other patients. He opened up to his therapist and other patients about his struggles with his father, his vicious fights with Bowman and the challenges of handling fame. One day, he confessed that he had long seen himself as the "bring the family back together" baby. His therapist's response: "Well, you failed. How does that feel?" In time, Phelps came to realize that all those snake nightmares followed some sort of conflict, conversation or thought involving his father.
"Whether I was arguing with my father or if anything about my father would come up, I'd have a dream about a snake that week," he said. "I kind of feel like that's why I was always afraid of them. I didn't want to go back to that. I didn't know if there would be a conflict between us, so I stiff-armed him and went away."
There were psychodramas in which Phelps could see the next six months, 12 months and five years with his addiction and without. "On one path, you and your family get closer and closer," he says. "And on the other path, you get further and further apart. Seeing those was pretty crazy. It helped me get my head clear. It's been stuck in my ass for so long."
Between therapy sessions, Phelps trained in a small pool, working on kicking drills and flip turns as other patients watched. Each morning, he lifted in the facility's gym and cycled 20 miles a day. Talking to him on the phone, Bowman sensed a change. But not until he visited Phelps did he realize to what degree.
"I'm the most skeptical person ever," Bowman says. "I don't believe any of that 'He'll never change, he's always going to be that way.' But he was completely different in a way I never imagined. He was honest, engaged. I left there that day thinking maybe there's a chance this would help him."
AS FAMILY WEEK approached at The Meadows, Phelps wondered whether to include his dad on the list of people to invite. "I didn't want another letdown moment in my life," he says. "I didn't want to put any energy into something that I thought was a dead-end street." But the therapists and other patients encouraged Phelps to keep an open mind. So he included the name Fred Phelps.
On the day Fred received his invite, he didn't think twice about going. Michael was his son. He needed help. But that didn't make walking through the doors at The Meadows any easier. Michael was stunned when Fred arrived. He reached out and the two shook hands. Then Michael pulled him in for a hug. Neither of them could remember the last time they had embraced. "That just told me he was glad I was there," Fred says.
Debbie and Michael's girlfriend, Nicole, were there that week too. For the next several days, Michael and his father opened up. Some of the words felt good. Others didn't. They both tried not to take it personally. "There were things like missing that meet that I had no idea meant that much to him," Fred says.
One afternoon, while Michael was in a meeting with a counselor, Fred found his way to the community room and worked on a puzzle for about an hour. The next day, Fred noticed the puzzle was finished. Michael told his dad that after he had left that night, patients finished the puzzle. "I just remember it hitting me that here was this moment that he and everyone else had such a positive interaction from something I started," Fred says. "It was pretty cool. I don't think he even knew I liked doing puzzles."
The next day, Fred started another puzzle. Then another. Over the course of the week, father and son grew closer and closer. When it was finally time for Fred to head back to Baltimore, he cried. "I just wanted to stay there with him," Fred says. "Here was this side of Michael I had never seen before. It was life-changing -- for both of us. We got everything out there. It gave me some insight on everything he had gone through, how I could be supportive."
In the days and months after family week, Michael would pick up the phone and text or call Fred just to say hi. Sometimes they'd talk for half an hour or 45 minutes. Other times it was a quick hello. It felt different. "Like a father and son," Fred says, "but more than that, like friends." The following June, Fred joined Debbie and others at a surprise 30th birthday party for Michael and Nicole in Colorado Springs. A few months later, Fred was out picking up a pizza one night when Michael called with news. Nicole was pregnant. Michael was going to be a dad.
EARLY ON the morning of May 5, Phelps was brushing his teeth when he received the call. He had been training in Colorado Springs for two weeks and texted Nicole when he woke up, winning that day's who-can-say-I-love-you-more game first. But he missed Nicole's return call. She called Schmitt, who handed Phelps the phone. "I knew what was going on," he says. "I figured we're probably having a kid today." The baby wasn't due for another three weeks, and Phelps was supposed to fly to Baltimore the next day for his sister's wedding. Instead, he soon found himself pacing back and forth as the only passenger on a private jet heading to Arizona.
For as long as he could remember, Phelps had decided he would never hold someone else's baby. Family, friends, it didn't matter. People would try to hand him their baby and ask for a selfie, but he always said no. He wanted the first baby he pressed his skin against to be his own.
Around 7:20 that night, Phelps finally had that chance. He had watched in astonishment as Nicole had given birth to a little boy, Boomer Robert Phelps (the middle name was as a tribute to Bowman). He had cut the boy's umbilical cord. And then Boomer, wrapped in a warm blanket, was handed to his father. Tears streamed down Phelps' face. "I just kind of stood there," Phelps says. "I didn't think I would be emotional, but it all just sort of hit me. That's our son. And you suddenly have this new appreciation for what love really is."
That night, Phelps stayed in the hospital with Nicole and Boomer. On Saturday, their new family returned home. Michael and Nicole had dated on and off since Michigan. They broke up before London and again before Beijing, but in 2014 Phelps persuaded Nicole to give him one more chance. In 2015, Michael asked Nicole to be his wife -- the wedding will come after Rio.
That first night after coming home from the hospital, all they could think about was their new roles as parents. Phelps jumped at every noise, barely sleeping for hours. "I wouldn't pick him up or anything. I would just stare and watch him sleep," he says. "It was all just so surreal."
At the end of the next day, Mother's Day, Phelps flew back to Colorado to continue training. As the plane lifted off, he began to cry. For so many years, the pool had provided the escape from his family life. Now the water was keeping him from the family he had finally built for himself. "As soon as we took off, it was brutal," he says. "Like something had been taken from me. It was the hardest goodbye I had ever had."
A friend reminded Phelps that he has three more months of work, and then he can spend as much time with his son as he wants. "That's what I keep reminding myself," he says.
AT ANOTHER ASU TRAINING SESSION in the spring, Phelps was finishing a kicking set when he grabbed the lane line to pull himself to the wall. Bowman, frustrated, shook his head. "That s--- drives me nuts," he said. "But I've decided to let it go. I've learned it's not worth it."
At some point late on Aug. 13, it will all be over. There will be no more walls to touch. No more clocks to race. No more coaches to please. Instead, a baby boy will be waiting for him in the stands. So, too, will the boy's mother, eager to marry Phelps in a small ceremony not long after the conclusion of the Games.
Phelps says he hasn't had a drink since Oct. 5, 2014, his last day in Baltimore before leaving for The Meadows. Still, long after the post-Rio tour is over, how does he plan to maintain his new grounded, centered life?
"You mean, how do I know I'm not going to go out and keep doing stupid s---?" Phelps says, laughing. "That's basically what you're asking, right?"
Phelps says he wants to get into business and spend more time working with his foundation, which helps children learn water safety. There are plans to help Bowman as an assistant at ASU and travel with Boomer and Nicole. But the real answer comes in the evolution of his roles in this world.
"The swimming is fine -- I'm glad for the swimming," Bowman says. "But quite frankly, if he stops right now and never swims again but stays in this place as a person, I'd be thrilled."
Adds Fred Phelps: "I'm proud of the fact that he found himself and knows who he is now. He sees now that there is a tomorrow way down the road. It's real life. He's going to be a human being. A father. A husband. A friend. He's going to be a son."
Fred is unsure whether he will go to Rio. Michael doesn't know what will become of his relationship with Fred long-term. But he knows it is in a far better place than it has been in years. "Would I like to have a father? Sure," he says. "Is it possible at this point in my life? Who knows? You were gone for so long; I'm sorry, you're not going to walk in now and pick up where you left off. But it is good to finally have the friendship that I always wanted."
Fatherhood already has begun to change the way Phelps looks at his relationships with Fred and Bowman. He has realized he doesn't want to miss a thing. That's why, while he's away from Boomer, Phelps and Nicole are constantly FaceTiming, and she's always sending him photos and videos. "I think we're going to run out of data," Phelps says. For now, he has accepted his past and moved on, and he's eager to continue growing alongside his new family.
"I've realized that was the best my father could have done," he says. "It sucks. But I get it. I understand now. I've learned a lot on the road that I've walked that will make me a better father and help me not make some of the same mistakes.
"This is a new journey. I truly can't wait for the next chapter of my life. And I don't know the last time I've said that."