Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Best of No Limits: The Will to Succeed, by Michael Phelps

Until recently, I used to carry around a mechanical pencil and small ruler with every book I read. I did so to take notes in the margins and underline certain passages. These days, I read ebooks, which obviates these instruments and makes note-taking and highlighting effortless. Here are the highlights from my latest read, Michael Phelps's (pre-London) memoir, No Limits: The Will to Succeed.


* It stayed there all that winter, all that spring, into the summer, until we went to Omaha and the Trials. Every day when I’d open that locker, it was the first thing I’d see, that article, Ian’s words, dangling there. Every day when I’d close that locker door, that fluttering piece of paper served as a reminder of the many doubters.

* Every morning, the first thing I’d see when I woke up was that photo. Every morning that photo was a kick in the backside. It drove me. It pushed me. It punished me.

* Of all the messages I got from home during the course of the 2008 Olympics, Troy’s is the only one I saved so that I could read it afterward, get fired way, way up time and again. This is what it said:

“All right, brother man!! Last race!! This one is NOT for you…it’s for your fans, like me, who you inspire every day for the past six years…it’s for Bob and your mom…. for without them none of this would be possible…it’s for the United States…the best damn country on the face of the earth…it’s for history!! It’s for you making this sport what it is today!! It’s for all the people who talked smack and doubted you ever!! It’s for being the best Olympic athlete ever to grace this planet!!! Go get ’em!! Don’t hold back!! You can do it, buddy!! I’m so damn proud of ya!! Give ’em hellllllllll !!!!!”


"Words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality."

* You can’t see straight. Things are blurry. You feel like you can’t move.

But you can. That’s what I came to understand. At that point it’s pretty much just goals. If you want to meet your goals, this is what it takes.

* The one thing that’s common to all successful people: they make a habit of doing things that unsuccessful people don’t like to do.

* For five years, from 1998 to 2003, we did not believe in days off. I had one because of a snowstorm, two more due to the removal of wisdom teeth. Christmas? See you at the pool. Thanksgiving? Pool. Birthdays? Pool. Sponsor obligations? Work them out around practice time.

* You can make a million mistakes, just not the same one twice.

* You’re tired; you feel you can’t move; you’re truly hurting. That’s when he would throw down especially hard sets. Bob wanted to gauge not only how I felt under pressure but, more important, how I responded under pressure.

* I was not put out so much at the wardrobe malfunction—stuff happens—but frustrated at the opportunity lost.

Phelps's Coach, Bob Bowman

* Bob is exquisitely demanding. But it is with him that I learned this essential truth: nothing is impossible.

* This did not deter Bob. He believed in me.

* When I was younger, he had taught me how to tie a tie. For my first school dance, when I was thirteen, he let me leave practice fifteen minutes early; when I showed up with the tie and went to put it on, he noticed that my shirt was buttoned one button off. So we fixed that together. When I was a teenager, he taught me how to drive. His car was a stick shift, and that’s how I learned. I always had trouble: I remember going to school one day, on a hill at a busy intersection, and of course I stalled the car in the middle of the hill. There were tons of people behind me. We fixed that together, too. I remember getting out of a workout and going to the prom—regular black tux, stretch white Hummer limo—and Bob was there to watch me head off.

All the little things like that: Bob has always been there for me.

* My mom, who was at work, had put a large banner saying, “Congratulations,” on the lawn and had trimmed it in red, white, and blue. Bob, who had brought me back to the house, took down the entire display. When she got home, Mom was furious. Bob was unmoved. It was a matter, Bob said, of tempering expectations. Best to keep everything in perspective. Bob asked my mom, “What are you going to do when he wins nationals? He got third. If he wins, are you going to buy him a car? If he sets a world record, what, a house? You can’t get excited about every step. There are so many steps. We’re on, like, step 200 of 3,000. How are we going to keep going?”

* I’d been kicked out of practice early by Bob, for not doing what he wanted the way he wanted it done or when he wanted it.

* Bob said to me, you can do what you want, but as of now you’re not a member of NBAC, and until you come back and do the set, you never will be. I went home in tears.

* In nine years, he coached in seven places in five states.

* Bob named a horse after the Vanderkaay family. The Vanderkaays instead of me? Well, Bob would say, first of all that’s a lot of pressure to put on a horse. Second, and here came the punch line, this horse is too nice.

The one that bites, he said, that one I’ll name Michael.

* In Australia in 2003, Bob deliberately asked our driver to show up late. That way I had to spend more time waiting at the pool, and we missed dinner. I ordered pizza. That same trip, he stepped on my goggles, on purpose. I had to make do.

* It was the most miserable month ever, for him and for me.

* “Clearly, an accomplishment of this magnitude doesn’t happen with just one or two people. There are a lot of people who have been involved in this process, from Michael’s family, my family for that matter, everyone back at NBAC where we started and will soon return, all our fans in Ann Arbor and Baltimore, Club Wolverine—I’d like to thank them for everything they’ve done. And particularly this amazing Olympic swimming team, the best group of guys I’ve ever been around—and it has just been an honor to be a part of it.”


* What I discovered soon after starting to swim was that the pool was a safe haven.

* My turns needed work, my chin had to stay down when I was swimming the fly, my breathing during the free needed to come back farther to the left.

* Olympic swimming, like all long-course racing, is all in the legs.

* The day of the 200 free final, dipping into the warm-up pool, I felt it. My freestyle had never, ever felt that smooth. Right then and there, I thought, something special might happen here. Something really special.

* In Baltimore, I never had a lane to swim in by myself. I swam four or five to a lane, like everyone else. No special treatment, not after the 2000 Olympics, nothing.

* A power outage one day at the pool in Michigan meant nothing. We swam in the dark. That was good, Bob said. Made you swim by feel. Forced you to count your strokes.

* The first length usually takes 16 strokes. The second, 18; the gap is two because the race starts with a dive. The third length usually goes 19 strokes. The final length, 19 or 20.

* Perfect. I had spaced it perfectly, the glide carrying me into the wall and a touch. I hadn’t come into the wall in midstroke or hammered into it or jammed my fingers or bent back my wrist or any of the other things that could have gone wrong. In Omaha, Emily Silver had broken her right hand after swimming into the wall at the finish of the 50-meter free semis. It put her out of the pool for more than a week.

* All of us in Club Wolverine pushed each other hard. In Baltimore, I had been used to winning every practice set, it seemed. Not here. Davis Tarwater had emerged as one of the best in the country in the butterfly. He and I would go at it in fly sets; I had never had anyone go with me in those sets but, literally, he and I would be swimming side by side in what seemed like every set. Peter Vanderkaay was a 2004 Olympic teammate of mine from Athens. Klete Keller, who trained in Ann Arbor until moving to Southern California, had been a teammate in both Sydney and Athens.

* There were no bathroom breaks. At least for the guys. If you had to go, you went, right there in the pool.

* I chopped my last stroke. It was short and fast, a half-stroke, really. I still can’t fully explain why. Maybe it was experience. Absolutely competitive will. There wasn’t time, really, to form a complete thought. It was an impulse. I knew I had to do something. The situation demanded action.

* I did some highly technical little things right at the very end, too, which Cavic did not, and those bought me time and made a difference. My head was down; his came up. My feet were straight; his, again, came up. Swimming fast is, generally speaking, a horizontal proposition; vertical movements slow you down. It typically pays to be in as straight and horizontal a line as possible.

Swimming Equipment

* I race in metallic Speedo goggles, a model called the “Speed Socket.” I also race in two caps. The sequence goes like this: I put the goggles on, then one cap, then the other. That way the goggles are secure.

* I particularly liked one with yellow moons and yellow unicorn heads set against a magenta background. It was so hideously ugly that it actually had tons of style. Same for a neon-green one plastered with red cherries.

* The full-body LZR was a major step forward in swimsuit design. It was made of special water-repellent fabrics. Built into it, to hold your stomach and lower back tight, was a corsetlike compression unit. To reduce drag, the suit had no stitches; instead, the pieces were ultrasonically bonded together. Even the zipper was bonded into the suit to help keep the surface as smooth as possible.

* “I tested it. I threw it in the pool and it didn’t move at all. So I’ll still have to swim.”

* The Omega timing pads take roughly 6.5 pounds of pressure—3 kilograms—to trigger. Anything less and the pad thinks it’s just waves and won’t respond. Anything that much or more, you turn off the clock.

Phelps's Physique

* I am double-jointed in my knees, my ankles, and my elbows.

* Bob finally ordered me to stop jogging because I couldn’t even do that without running the risk of tripping over my own feet.

Phelps's Dad

* As time went on, we spent less and less time together. Eventually, I stopped trying to include him in my activities and he, in turn, stopped trying to involve himself in.

Phelps's Mom, Debbie

* Even before I looked at the scoreboard, I looked for Mom.

* "Look, Mom. Look what I did."

* Mom had that glowing, adoring look that only mothers looking at their children can have. That look doesn’t change when the kids get to be big kids.

* As many people, maybe more, have come up to say, “We love your mom,” as have said, “Congratulations.” At the close of Saturday Night Live, the female cast members kept saying, we love your mom—she’s awesome!

She is awesome.

Ryan Lochte

* Maybe the best short-course racer in the world.

* Lochte is a good friend, one of my best friends in swimming.

U.S. Olympic Trials

* Hayley McGregory finished third in the 2004 Trials in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes. She would go on at the 2008 Trials to set a world record in the 100 back in the preliminaries; in the finals, she finished third. In the 200 back, she finished third. She did not make the team.

* “If I’m third at the Olympics, it means I’m on the medal stand in a few minutes. If I’m third at the Trials, it means I’m on the couch for a month,” Gary Hall, Jr., one of the most accomplished American sprinters of the last twenty years, once said.


* My academic track in high school had to be designed, with help from teachers and school administrators, to allow me to fulfill the essential Maryland state requirements for a diploma but no more. No honors classes, no advanced placement. Could it be worked out so that I might on some days be allowed to arrive at school later than the other kids? Might it be possible to be let out early?

The Olympics

* Of the 48 swimmers on our team, 41 came home with at least one medal. I was one of the seven who didn’t.

Phelps's Agent, Pete Carlisle

* “So,” Peter said to me at that first meeting, “What do you want for your future, Michael? What are your goals?”

* Who to call first?

Should I call my mom, who would yell at me and worry? Bob, who would yell at me but help me? Or Peter, who I knew would help?

I called Peter.

Media Training

* To answer, well, of course I want to beat him and I think I can, would be impolite and immodest. It would be trash-talking. Not my way.

Ian Thorpe

* One day, warming up, Ian slipped into the water and blew by; he made up what seemed like 20 meters on me in two strokes.

* While Ian was magnificent in the pool, he was a study in how to behave out of it.

Weight Lifting

* I went from having never lifted so much as a barbell in my life to grueling workouts in the weight room three days a week, the weight work typically following two hours in the pool.

* Eight Olympic medals, six gold, and, when I started doing the box squat at Michigan, one of the most basic of strength-building exercises for the legs, I was lucky to be able to max out one rep at 300 pounds.

Phelps Being Bullied

* I was about 11 or 12. We were at a swim meet. The older boys were about to dump my head in the toilet, give me a swirlie, as it was called, until someone came in, maybe Bob, maybe another group of kids, I don’t remember, and I escaped. I do remember this: I ran out of that bathroom in tears.

Phelps's ADHD

* I don’t know if it was that I didn’t want to go to the nurse’s office, or that I thought I had beaten it. But I knew I didn’t want to take Ritalin anymore. I viewed it as an unnecessary crutch. I was mentally tough enough to go without it, I was sure.

Phelps's Sister, Whitney

* I knew I had made that 2000 team in no small part because of Whitney; she had shown me what kind of dedication and commitment it took.

Erik Vendt

* Without Erik Vendt, there was no way I could have gotten through the years from Athens to Beijing.

Iian Crocker

* It was an easy call, really. It was the right thing to do.

Mark Spitz

* At the podium, Mark shook my hand and leaned in to say a few words: “I’ll be over in Athens to watch you, and I’m behind you all the way. I know what you’re going through. I went through it once before. Enjoy it. Have fun with it. Go get ’em.” Mark has always had a gift for the dramatic and at that point he hopped onto the podium, grabbed my right wrist with his left hand and raised both of our arms to the sky. He then pointed to me with his right finger, as if to say, here’s your new champion. It was, and is still, one of the most exciting memories swimming could ever have given me.