It once seemed impossible that anyone could go faster in the butterfly. By the time it happened, the most decorated Olympian had a growing family and no problem letting go of records.
A plaintive voice on the other end of the line was clearly distraught over the loss of a cherished possession. It was late at night at the world swimming championships in Gwangju, South Korea, but the breakfast hour halfway around the world where Phelps, his pregnant wife, Nicole, and their two sons, Boomer, 3, and Beckett, 1, were vacationing.
I had phoned Phelps from South Korea for his reaction to losing his 100-metre butterfly world record to the American Caeleb Dressel last month. Kristof Milak, a 19-year-old from Hungary, had shattered Phelps' world record in the 200 butterfly earlier in the meet.
Phelps was once the master of the butterfly. Now, for the first time since 2001, he has no world records in his signature stroke.
But Phelps, 34, wasn't the one in mourning. He spoke with awe about the easy speed of Dressel, though he had to raise his voice to be heard over Boomer, who was very upset about having misplaced his stuffed animal, Baby Monkey.
It was not that long ago that Phelps' sense of self was tied up in those records, so his equanimity in their absence seemed worth a closer look. A week later, Phelps sat down with The New York Times at Paradise Valley Country Club in Arizona to talk about his diminished presence in the record books and his post-swimming life.
At the pool there he helped his good friend Allison Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist and the reigning national champion in the 200-metre freestyle, with her stroke technique.
After she exited the water, a man entered wearing a jammer suit from Phelps' signature line. Phelps gave the stranger some freestyle tips, too.
There was good news. Baby Monkey was back in Boomer's possession, and Phelps is OK with his butterfly records being gone forever.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q: You made your first Olympic team in the 200 butterfly, set your first world record in the 200 butterfly. You held the world record in the 200 butterfly for 18 years. Did it feel as if you lost two family heirlooms when you lost both butterfly records?
A: It's just crazy because butterfly was the one stroke that meant the most to me, right? To have them both be gone in the same week was not what I was expecting, by any means. The 200 fly was especially hard because I'd had that record for more than half my life. And before I came along, it was my sister Whitney's event. So it runs deeper than just saying, "This is my record." That stroke has been in the Phelps family for a long time.
I sent Bob (Bowman, his longtime coach) a text after the 100 fly record was broken that said, "I swear to God, if my 400 I.M. record gets broken, I'll meet you in Colorado Springs for training." That one I think is pretty safe for now. It's frustrating that the records didn't last longer, but I love being able to see kids breaking through. That is awesome. You have to have performances like that in the sport in order to see the sport continue to grow and evolve. If you have records that are completely untouchable, people will be, like, "Oh my God, why even try?"
Q: You have so many other accomplishments, starting with your record eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Games, that nobody is likely ever to surpass. Your body of work, which includes a record 28 Olympic medals, can't be erased in one meet. Is that how you look at it?
A: After Caeleb won eight medals in South Korea, I saw a headline that said, "Caeleb Dressel Surpasses Phelps." No, he didn't. When I won seven golds at the 2007 meet, I broke five world records. Kristof Milak broke one world record. I broke 39. So keep going. Break that record 10 more times. Hold it for 18 years. It's about longevity. I've gotten a bunch of texts this week from people commenting on Olympic anniversaries: the third anniversary of when I became the first swimmer to four-peat in an event, in the 200 IM; the 11th anniversary of the 400 free relay gold in Beijing.
Q: Which memory stands out more, your first Olympic gold medal, in the 400 individual medley at the 2004 Olympics, or your 23rd, in the 400 medley relay in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro?
A: Without question, the last gold medal will stand out more than really any of them just because of the journey and having Booms there. That one for me is personally the most memorable, though it's hard to leave out Beijing.
Q: I've heard people say, "Imagine how much better Phelps could have done at the 2016 Olympics if he hadn't had the DUI and other issues that landed him in rehab in 2014." How do you respond?
A: Without the lows of 2014, there is no 2016. I would have just tuned out. I would have been like, "Bye, see you later," and I would have moved on. That DUI was not a good experience, but looking back on it, it made me be able to be where I am today, watching Boomer literally grow up by the minute, and Beckett, too, who is a full parrot right now, repeating everything we say. Looking back to 10 years ago, or eight, there's no shot in hell I'd ever be able to even be present, be happy, really be enjoying this process of watching these little humans grow up in the world.
Q: As you followed the world championships, how connected did you feel to the sport?
A: I feel pretty removed from the sport, the most I've ever been in my life, just because of everything we have going on, everything that we're getting ready for. Every day we walk down the hallway when we're putting the kids to bed, and every day they see this big photo of me swimming butterfly and both the kids say, "Dada" or "Daddy." So that's cool. But there aren't many active swimmers that I talk to. I'm not going to many swim meets.
Q: You said in 2016 that you're not sure you ever swam an Olympic final that didn't include at least one swimmer who was using performance-enhancing drugs. Do you worry about the public's perception of the sport in the wake of controversies swirling around athletes like the Chinese freestyler Sun Yang, who was shunned on the medals podium by a couple of his world championship competitors?
A: I've made it really clear how frustrated I am that some people choose to take a short cut and use performance-enhancing drugs instead of putting in the training and the work that it takes to be a champion. I understand the frustrations of the people taking very public stands. But by focusing on what other people are doing, they're expending a lot of time and energy on something that is out of their control. There's only one group of people who can really clean up the sport and that's FINA.
Q: What's it like knowing you and Nicole, who is due with your third child in October, are soon to be outnumbered?
A: I'm not really stressed. Coming out of the 2016 Olympics, it was an unknown how I'd be able to take care of myself, let alone an entire family. I had never taken care of myself before. I've gone from having everyone else telling me what to do in the weight room and in the swimming pool and away from the pool to now trying to figure out how to raise two children, run a household, travel globally and make sure Nicole has everything she needs and make sure she's feeling OK and calm. We had no idea what we were doing with the first one, we had no idea what we were doing with two. We sure as hell don't know what to do with three.
Q: What does a normal day for you look like?
A: Boomer gets us up, and between 6 and 9 in the morning I'm basically hanging out with the kids. I make breakfast almost every morning. It's usually pancakes or eggs, and there's always fruit. Boom loves pancakes and Beckett is a machine, he'll eat anything — oatmeal, cereal, yogurt. From 9 till noon, I'm either making calls or taking care of odds and ends around the house or running errands. Lately I've basically been going through the entire house, room by room, picking apart every little small corner and getting rid of stuff or reorganising everything, getting everything in order and ready for baby No. 3 when it happens. At some point I'll go swim. After that, I'm in the garage for an hour and a half or two hours.
I'll get on a stationary bike and ride for 50-90 minutes, then I'll do some abs work and stretching. From time to time, I'll play golf, and if I do that, I tee it up in the morning. A lot of nights I'll cook dinner. I really enjoy cooking because it's peaceful. The kids will be outside playing, so it's quiet time. I used to have conversations and do multiple things at once, but after burning this and undercooking that, I learned that when I'm in the kitchen, I have to focus on what I'm doing if I don't want to accidentally burn down the house or poison my family.
Written by: Karen Crouse
Photographs by: Caitlin O'Hara and Doug Mills
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES