WAYNE DREHS spent months reporting his profile of Michael Phelps, as the swimmer prepares for his last Olympics. In this story behind the story, he talks about a turning point in that process.
From the very beginning of Michael Phelps' comeback -- long before the DUI or the 45 days of alcohol rehab at The Meadows -- I desperately wanted to better understand the man behind the 18 gold medals. I had interviewed Phelps countless times before but hadn't once felt that I had come close to knowing him. There always seemed to be so much more there, tucked behind a fiercely protected wall. In most interviews he was moody and clichéd, with little to say. On the rare occasions you would speak to him one-on-one, he didn't want to be there and said little of substance, and everyone left the room feeling as if they had wasted their time. Except perhaps the corporate sponsor Phelps was there to promote.
We all knew what Phelps had accomplished in the water. We had all seen him trying to sell us $5 footlongs, but what did we really know about him? Who was Phelps the person? I needed access to Phelps' thoughts, feelings and emotions -- not just his presence. In the fall of 2014, I felt I was making headway. And then Phelps was arrested for DUI -- he ended up pleading guilty and got probation -- and went to The Meadows for those 45 days.
For the purposes of getting Phelps to open up, it was probably one of the best things that could have happened. Now Phelps needed the media to share his story. And the challenge became less about access and more about filtering what was real from what might be spin.
During the span of eight months, I interviewed Phelps in six states. We ate lunch and dinner together. And each time we met, he began to reveal more and more about his struggles out of the water. He talked about his dad. His fights with coach Bob Bowman. His often polarizing personality during practice. "I can be quite a d---," he admitted.
I also sat down for lengthy in-person interviews with his mother, father and girlfriend. I talked to coaches, swimmers and others around the sport who knew Phelps well. Bowman and I talked for more than seven hours. At one point, I asked Bowman why anyone should believe that, unlike London, this wasn't another PR job. "Because you're here," Bowman told me. "There's nothing to hide anymore. We talk about Fred. We talk about the fights. We talk about Michael ditching practice. It's all out there now. There are no more secrets."
Only Bowman and Phelps knows if that's really the truth. I can tell you there wasn't a single question I asked that he refused to answer or brushed aside. He was always open and revealing.
Throughout my reporting of this piece, friends and family would ask me one question more than any other: Had Michael Phelps really changed? I told them all the same simple story. After the second day of a meet in January in Austin, Texas, the swimming complex had all but emptied when Phelps started to make his way toward the exit. Before his hand pushed open the door, he stopped, turned around and found a USA Swimming PR representative. "Do you need me for anything tonight?" he asked. "Does anybody want to talk to me?" I just stood there and shook my head, because four years ago that would have been unfathomable for Phelps. Instead, he would have secretly tried to slip out a back door rather than talk to reporters. Now he was making sure nobody needed anything from him.
Phelps and I left together that night, and as we walked into the Austin darkness we made plans to meet in Arizona the following week. I told him how bizarre it was that he was now asking if reporters needed anything else from him. He looked at me and shrugged. We kept walking. I mentioned something about my daughters; I don't even remember what it was. He smiled and said how excited he was to become a father (his first child, a son, was born in May). And then, before we parted ways, he turned around and asked me a question: "What do you like best about being a dad?" I didn't even know what to say. Not only was Phelps now answering probing, personal questions; he was asking them, too.