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Bowman could see that Phelps was born to swim. Blessed with a sinewy, whiplike body, a long torso and large hands and feet, plus a 6ft. 7in. arm span that extends 3 in. beyond his height (the usual ratio is 1 to 1), Phelps has as close to an ideal swimming body as you can get. Like other top swimmers, he doesn't so much power through the water as slide along it, propelled by a vigorous dolphin kick that surges from his head to his toes in a high-amplitude wave.
Capitalizing on that, Bowman tried Phelps in other strokes and found that the gangly teen was a quick learner with an uncanny feel for the water. Still, Phelps says, "he took every single stroke and changed it. From Day One, he wanted me to swim multiple events." That meant an early focus on the individual medley--the grueling test of all four strokes, which Phelps picked up with little argument.
The teen did balk, though, when Bowman tried to fix his starts and turns, the one area in which Phelps falters. In a sport measured in hundredths of a second, getting a smooth start can mean a world record; not wasting time at the wall can separate medal winners from also-rans. Phelps hasn't perfected his turns, says Bowman, because he is simply too good a swimmer. "He'd think, I'll just swim a little harder, and then say, 'That was a best time. How can you complain about that?'"
As his swimming was taking shape, though, Phelps' family was breaking up. The same year he learned to swim, Debbie, a Baltimore County school administrator, and Frank, a Maryland state trooper, decided to divorce. The couple had built a home on a fiveacre spread in Harford County, Md., more than 60 miles from the Baltimore pool where their children were training. The round-trip drives, sometimes twice a day, were wearying. Debbie wanted to move the family to Baltimore; Frank wasn't so sure. It was one more issue in a deteriorating relationship. Phelps and his sisters remained with their mother, and when Hilary and Whitney moved away for college, his bond with his mom deepened.
She's sensitive to his growing celebrity and the jealousies that can flower in his classmates and is vigilant almost to a fault. "When he went to a dance in high school, for example, I would tell him, 'Michael, please be careful. If you put your glass down, don't pick it back up'--things like that," she says, fearing everything from recreational drugs to banned substances. "It makes me sound like a nagging mother, but I always try to keep 10 steps ahead of him." Says Phelps: "We've gotten so much closer over the past few years because it's only been us. She's loosened up a bit. I guess you could say she's sort of like a chill mom." Last Christmas Phelps surprised her with a new Mercedes, and this spring he bought her diamond earrings for her birthday. Phelps is not nearly so close to his father. "I wouldn't say it's necessarily a bad relationship, but I wouldn't say it's the best relationship. And the way my life is right now, I wouldn't want anything to change."
In Bowman's grand plan, Phelps would have watched--not participated in--the 2000 Olympics, but Phelps' butterfly had progressed so quickly, the pair found themselves at the Olympic trials. By the fourth day, Phelps had earned a berth to Sydney.