After the London Olympics, Bob Bowman thought it was time to try something new. He was feeling just like his most famous pupil, Michael Phelps.
"Actually," Bowman said, "I really didn’t think I would come back to coaching."
Yet there he was, ready to take up his familiar position on deck, as the U.S. swimming team arrived in Barcelona on Wednesday for the world championships.
"I realized this is probably what I should be doing," Bowman said with chuckle, speaking during a phone interview before the Americans flew out from their training camp in Spain’s Basque region.
While Phelps retired after the London Games, having won all 18 of his gold medals with Bowman at his side, the coach who molded the winningest Olympian ever did some consulting work for several countries before returning in May to what he does best.
He’ll be coaching the American men in Barcelona, where the pool swimming at worlds begins on Sunday.
Bowman is coy about reports that Phelps is planning a comeback of his own, just in time for the 2016 Rio Games.
"There have been no secret training sessions," the coach said. "I don’t know what he’s doing. I haven’t seen any indications thus far. When I see it, then I’ll believe it. But not yet."
As for Bowman, he’s found that life after Phelps does have its advantages. For one thing, he’s gotten queries from top swimmers around the world, all interested in picking his brain for training tips or to work with him at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Just a month ago, French star Yannick Agnel joined Bowman’s training group.
"I don’t know about the mastermind part," Bowman quipped. "I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Michael. But I have had some interest. I’m pretty selective about it. Yannick adds a lot to our program."
Also, Bowman finds it easier to get around without negotiating the rock-star treatment Phelps required no matter where he went.
"Anywhere I used to travel with Michael, it was like an adventure," the coach said. "You had to try to get the logistics done to keep him from being hounded too much, to do things like get a (practice) lane where people weren’t trying to steal his water. A lot of things like that I don’t miss."
Certainly, he misses seeing Phelps around the pool every day. Even though there were plenty of screaming matches between the two, they forged a unique partnership that was almost more like father and son than coach and athlete. They remain close friends and business partners, a relationship that figures to last a long time no matter what Phelps decides to do.
Even if Phelps doesn’t come back, Bowman has rediscovered the thrill of coaching. There have been some successes — Conor Dwyer and Chase Kalisz both made the U.S. team — and some disappointments, most notably the shocking failure of Allison Schmitt, a three-time gold medalist in London, to even make the squad for Barcelona.
"I’m surprised at how much it feels the same," Bowman said. "When I went to Indianapolis (for the national championships last month), I was excited to watch my kids swim, just like I was excited to watch Michael swim. It’s the same feeling. There’s not any difference when they do well or they do poorly. It’s the same process. It’s just different people."
Bowman worked as a consultant after the London Games, advising nations such as Great Britain, Turkey and China on their swimming programs. The new gig helped him recharge his coaching batteries and provided some valuable insight on new ways to do things.
"It was really fun," he said. "I love going to different countries and I really enjoyed working with other federations, just kind of learning how swimming operates in other parts of the world. It’s very different than it is in the U.S."
The consulting job helped Bowman form a partnership with the rapidly emerging Chinese team, which appears poised to challenge U.S. dominance at upcoming Olympics. Five Chinese swimmers have already been to North Baltimore to work with Bowman’s team. More than two dozen are scheduled to come over in August for another 10 days of training, and Bowman envisions a long-term relationship.
For now, the U.S. remains the team to beat at the world championships. Bowman expects another strong performance on the men’s side, where three-time Olympian and reality TV star Ryan Lochte is the most recognized name. But there’s plenty of up-and-comers ready to make their mark. That includes a pair of 19-year-olds: Kalisz, who will compete in the 400-meter individual medley (one of Phelps’ longtime events), and breaststroker Kevin Cordes.
On a personal level, Bowman is returning to the same city where Phelps emerged as a star at the 2003 world championships, becoming the only swimmer to break world records in different events on the same day and showing he was capable of handling the sort of grueling program that would eventually carry him to a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.