'There was no turning back': Phelps on his fourth shot at Olympic gold


Matt Lauer sits down with multiple medal-winning American swimmer Michael Phelps to discuss his preparations for London.

When all the cheering finally stopped after his record haul of eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, superstar swimmer Michael Phelps soon endured the downside of Olympic fame.

Out of shape, practicing intermittently, and caught smoking out of a bong in an infamous picture splashed across the national media, Phelps, 27, called it the hardest four years of his life.

“You’re so up on this big competitive level, and you’re at this peak,’’ Phelps told Matt Lauer in an interview that aired on TODAY Tuesday. “And then you just kind of roll down the hill.’’

Phelps is now in the midst of qualifying for his fourth and what he says will be his final Olympics. On Monday night, Phelps finished second behind rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for London in that event as he seeks to add to his record total of 14 career gold medals. The two will resume their rivalry Tuesday night as the trials continue.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

Michael Phelps after he finished second in the championship final heat of the Men's 400 m Individual Medley at the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center on Monday.

To even get himself back into shape to compete with the world’s best took a while for Phelps after the euphoria of Beijing, where he bested the previous record of seven gold medals set by Mark Spitz in 1972.

“I literally didn’t do anything for six months (after Beijing),’’ Phelps said. “I would come for like a week or two straight, and then I would just take two or three weeks off.’’

Given his record-breaking accomplishments, Phelps could certainly have called it a career after his 2008 performance, but chose to take one last shot at Olympic glory.

“I had made that commitment to go another four years, and there was no turning back at that point,’’ he said.

In 2009, Phelps went through the public embarrassment of a picture surfacing of him smoking from a bong at a party.

“I think the worst thing was just I hurt so many people around me,’’ he said. “I'll be the first to admit I made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life. It was a huge learning experience. I've had a lot of those through my career, and they've all made me a better person.’’

Phelps’ struggle with fame and motivation after his achievements in Beijing also lead to speculation of whether another letdown period will occur when his Olympic career comes to an end in London.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps greet each other after they competed in the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials Monday.

“I don’t want to say there's no shot, but I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere (near) the level I’ve gone through,’’ Phelps said. “I've been through tons of ups and downs in my career, and kind of being able to come to a closure in my career, I just don't see it happening.’’

Despite his struggles in the last three years to beat Lochte, whom he once routinely defeated, Phelps says this is the most relaxed he’s ever been in the four Olympics in which he has competed. His own coach, Bob Bowman, admits that the volume of training that Phelps has done does not approach his training for Beijing.

“I think if you ask me today, ‘Is he prepared to be as good a swimmer as he was in Beijing?’ I would have to say no because we haven't done the volume of training,’’ Bowman told NBC News. “If you ask me, ‘Has he prepared to be a better person than he was in Beijing?’ Without question. He's in a much better place in his life, and he's just more grown up.”

“Leading into 2000, '04 and '08, we were focused on doing a ton of volume,’’ Phelps said. “But it's not about going out and swimming 15 events. It's about going out and capping off a career.’’

Michael Phelps' adopted dog will learn to swim just like him

Phelps is making sure to stop and smell the roses this time. He is keeping a journal, which he said is unusual for him. With three more medals in London, he would become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

“Being able to look back at all the memories I have, I feel like it’s better if I just write them down,’’ he said. “I just found that if I'm having a bad day, I just open up my journal and write down the feelings that I have, and I feel a lot more relieved and relaxed afterwards.’’

Whatever happens in London, Phelps is ready to deal with the end of a legendary career.

“I don't care what anybody else says,’’ he said. “If I can say my life or my career has been a success, that's all that matters to me.’’

Scott Stump is a TODAY.com contributor who once took six months off after swimming 10 laps at the local YMCA pool. 

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Discuss this post

Someone needs to commission a poll to check out how many Americans really have an interests in the 16 day Olympics. How many will actually go to London? How many who actually will know someone competing.

  • 2 votes
Reply#1 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

You are so sad ;-(

  • 3 votes
#1.1 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 12:12 PM EDT

So what's your point? The question is: how many people here will watch Olympic coverage on TV? We'll know the answer to that in a few weeks. It will be a big number. So, again, what's your point?

  • 1 vote
#1.2 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

Latest news came in Phelps came in a full 5 seconds, FIVE behind Lochte. Not even close. Sorry Michael no more wheaties 4ru.

  • 1 vote
Reply#2 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 12:08 PM EDT

He is not claiming that he will win 8 medals this time around... and unless Lochte can win 9 (doubtful) then Michael's place in history is assured.

I'm glad they're friends and fierce competitors... it will make for a fun competition to watch.

Neither one of them has to have any regrets about their careers, they are both excellent athletes and should be proud of what they have accomplished.

Before you critisize them see if you can do what they can ;-)

  • 5 votes
#2.1 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 12:14 PM EDT

John Smith-332906 - Not sure where you come up with your news. Lochte beat Phelps in the 400 by .83 (4:07:06 to 4:07:89).

    #2.2 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

    It does not matter Skup - he was beaten!! Wether by .000006 seconds or 5 seconds - he was beaten! Period the END!!!

    Why am I even commenting on this story - it is lame and this guy is not even important. I am moving on!

      #2.3 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:33 PM EDT

      Isn't there a way to drug test him? I'm sure it's the constant marijuana bong hits that's preventing him from getting 1st place. I'm so disappointed and feel sorry for drug addicts like him and the rest. =( This stuff has no purpose on Earth whatsoever! Trust me

      • 1 vote
      Reply#3 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 12:33 PM EDT

      Stupidest comment I've read in a while. "Isn't there a way to drug test him?" Are you kidding me? "Drug addict" Are you serious?

      Please tell me that was a bad joke.

      • 5 votes
      #3.1 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:14 PM EDT

      Are you retarded? He got caught smoking marijuana. Do you have any idea how dangerous and addicting that drug is? Idiots i promise... go back to school LOL

      • 1 vote
      #3.2 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:24 PM EDT

      I think you are the retard John.....

      • 1 vote
      #3.3 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:17 PM EDT

      I guess John was serious....sad. BTW, olympic athletes are drug-tested after every event they compete in. No way Phelps is a drug addict. You are an ignoramous, John

      • 2 votes
      #3.4 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:19 PM EDT

      I am with John - no telling what kind of drugs that ole chap is taking.

        #3.5 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:33 PM EDT

        Yes, there is "telling what that ole chap is taking" It's called drug testing, and a lot of it.

          #3.6 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:38 PM EDT

          John.... It's so easy to criticize... why don't you try smoking pot AND then winning a race? ;-)

          A bong hit once in a blue moon does not make you a drug addict pretty much the same way that a single beer once in a while doesn't make you an alchi...

          Get a life you prudes!

            #3.7 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 5:13 PM EDT

            So ignorant

              #3.8 - Sat Jul 14, 2012 10:12 AM EDT

              it was marijuana you twit, not heroin. You're probably more addicted to your morning coffee.

                #3.9 - Sat Jul 14, 2012 10:14 AM EDT

                “I would come for like a week or two straight, and then I would just take two or three weeks off.’’

                OMGS... If I came for a week or two straight my b@lls would fall off!

                • 2 votes
                Reply#4 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:15 PM EDT

                These guys have some serious stamina. They should put him on a Wheaties box just for that!

                • 3 votes
                #4.1 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:18 PM EDT

                Really, guys, really? So lame.....

                • 2 votes
                #4.2 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:26 PM EDT

                You're right, that was lame.

                • 1 vote
                #4.3 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:34 PM EDT

                You are ALL crazy!!!! This guy is an AMAZING athlete. A multi gold medal olympian winner competing against the BEST in the world. How can ANYBODY say anything negative?! Smoking some pot. BIG FREAKIN' DEAL!!!!! UNREAL! We are so doomed. People need to get educated, but making water run up hill would be an easier task. WOW!

                • 3 votes
                Reply#5 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 1:54 PM EDT

                Good luck, Michael. I hope you win several more golds in London!

                • 1 vote
                Reply#6 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:21 PM EDT

                So many sad and angry or bitter people that have done little or nothing significant with their pathetic lives, wish or desire the failures of others or to belittle great moments by great people. Phelps is a US citizen, representing our country on the international scale and has a chance for a 4th Olympic appearance which is a feat in itself and possibly become the most decorated winner of gold medals ever. Bravo to him and thanks for reprsenting our country so many times and doing it well. So what that you took a step back in 2009 and relaxed. I wish you the best this time regardless if you win 3 golds, a mixture, just one bronze or none at all. Enjoy this time in your life as if you make the decision not to try a 5th Olympic attendance, you will never recapture these glory days and the pain endured but the fun in competition. To all the naysayers, bugger off and go get a life.

                • 2 votes
                Reply#7 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:28 PM EDT

                Way too much hype surrounding this ole chap! The olympics are presented too often. It really has gotten old! Enough already - it is just swimming!!!!

                • 1 vote
                Reply#8 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:30 PM EDT

                Smokes pot. Wins Olympics. Wat.

                  Reply#9 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 6:18 PM EDT
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