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Phelps holds clinic for Special Olympic Athletes ahead of World Games

BALTIMORE -- Cathy Bennett vividly recalls a wild, 7-year-old boy whom she had to give swimming lessons.

"He would run around and would use every excuse he had not to get in the water," said Bennett, an instructor at the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center in Baltimore. "He would have to go to the bathroom. He would have to get something to eat. Whatever. Finally, I told him that he was getting in the water, and I realized he wasn't comfortable putting his face in the water. So I got him relaxed and had him swim on his back."

The instruction worked. Actually, it worked exceptionally well.

The boy was Michael Phelps.

Now 29, Phelps is using his star power as the world's most decorated Olympian to grow the sport and teach children and young adults all over the world.

And he spent a day last month at that same swim club to share the techniques he used as a youngster with five swimmers who will compete at the Special Olympics World Games, which will be held July 25-Aug. 2 in Los Angeles (ESPN, WatchESPN). The athletes traveled to Baltimore from as nearby as Berwyn Heights, Maryland, and as far away as Omaha, Nebraska.

Phelps first traveled to a Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai in 2007, soon after he competed in the World Championships in Australia and less than a year before he made swimming history by eclipsing Mark Spitz's record and winning eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing. Phelps got a taste of what was possible with Special Olympics then, and marvels at how far he -- and the program -- has come. Phelps has repeatedly turned to Bennett, who is entering her 50th summer as a swim instructor at Meadowbrook, to help with teaching Special Olympians worldwide, from Ireland to India to Uruguay.

To date, the Michael Phelps Foundation's signature program, appropriately named "im," after the individual medley, is available in 35 Boys & Girls Clubs across 29 states and 160 Special Olympics Teams across 34 countries. Phelps' program emphasizes swim instruction but also safety, as drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children 14 years and younger.

"The changes I have seen in this sport have been incredible," said Phelps, who first talked about making a global impact on the sport when he turned pro at the age of 15. "And I'm so excited to see what else will come in the future."

As Phelps was helping Special Olympian Adam Smith (from Palmyra, Pennsylvania), he showed Smith how he interlocked his thumb from one hand with his other hand when working on streamline technique.

"This is the same way I learned it when I was starting," Phelps said as he watched Smith try it in the water. "It's always a challenge to learn something new."

During the clinic on May 30, Phelps talked with the athletes about out-of-water training and goal setting, and told them he keeps a list of his goals by his bedside. Although he didn't provide specifics on his goals, he did tell them about various aspects of his swimming that he knows he needs to work on daily, mainly his flip turns.

"There are cameras here and a reporter here so I won't share my goals," he told them. "My mom doesn't even know my goals."

Of course, he has short-term goals, such as swimming well at nationals on Aug. 6-10 in San Antonio, Texas, and long-term goals such as making the U.S. Olympic team for the 2016 Rio Olympics, which would be his fifth trip to the Summer Games.

Phelps, who completed a six-week stay in rehab and said he is a changed man for it, said he and his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, read portions of a book called, "The Book of Awakening," written by a poet and cancer survivor named Mark Nepo.

"We try to read it every morning and it really makes you want to think," Phelps said. "It has helped us get through the day. Sometimes, we don't read it until the afternoon and then we think about it and say, 'Why didn't we read it in the morning? That would have helped us earlier in the day.'

"One story was about a little kid who put a handful of salt in a glass of water and he drank it and it was awful. But then he put the same handful into a lake and drank a cup of water from the lake. It wasn't so bad. I have to think more about drinking from the lake.

"I love life now, I really do, but I have struggles every day," Phelps added. "It's an emotional roller coaster every day, but this is the closest I have ever been with my family in my life, and I have a great team supporting me. I am in a really happy spot now."

"This is amazingly huge. When I hung up the phone about this [event], she let out a huge scream. I never heard a scream that loud." Jane Long, whose daughter Robin was one of five Special Olympics athletes to take part in a swimming clinic Saturday with Michael Phelps ahead of this summer's Special Olympics World Games

Phelps is coming off a difficult meet in Charlotte, where his best finish in five events was third.

"I have been absolutely throttled in practice since that," he said. "I haven't had practice like that since 2002. I am looking at the positives and the negatives of Charlotte and coming into practice with a good attitude.

"[Coach] Bob [Bowman] told me to take the day off recently," Phelps added. "I asked him, 'Do you really want me to take the day off or are you just telling me to take a day off?' Bob said he really wanted me to come in. I said, 'I'll be there then.' The old me would have said, 'Hell yeah. I'm sleeping in.'"

Phelps spent a good chunk of the clinic just talking with the athletes. He chatted with them about swimming and a host of other topics, ranging from the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, to his fiancée's dog, Juno, a French bulldog whom he was taking care of for the day.

Phelps even traded competition stories. One of the athletes, Garrett Peterson, told Phelps about a meet just last week. In the final 400 meters of a 1,500-meter race, Peterson's goggles welled up with water and his swim cap bubbled up on top. But he pushed through to the finish.

Phelps heard the story and laughed.

"I know what that's like," Phelps said. "Trust me."

Back in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps swam the final stretch of the 200-meter butterfly with water-logged goggles. Even though he couldn't see, he told the athletes he had trained to count his strokes. "Luckily I counted my strokes and hit the wall as planned," Phelps said. Peterson, who had met Phelps back in 2012 when Phelps was in Omaha for the U.S. Olympic trials, recalled taking photos with the swimming star and said Phelps talked to him about various strokes. Peterson plans to compete in three events in Los Angeles, the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle.

"It really means so much that Michael has this swim program and that someone of his caliber is involved and spends the time with these athletes," said Dian Christensen, who coaches Peterson and has been a local Special Olympics coach in Nebraska for almost 20 years.

Christensen first became involved with Special Olympics because her daughter has an intellectual disability. She has been trained in Phelps' program and will be a head coach in Los Angeles.

All of the athletes were touched just by being around the swimming legend.

Robin Long, an 18-year-old athlete from Newark, Delaware, will graduate from high school Tuesday. But the excitement about that milestone took a backseat to meeting Phelps at the clinic.

"This is amazingly huge," said Jane Long, Robin's mother. "When I hung up the phone about this [event], she let out a huge scream. I never heard a scream that loud."

And how was she at the pool?

"I don't think she slept too much last night," Jane said . "She was pretty excited. We got here pretty early. It's been amazing."