In a drawer in Michael Phelps's home sits a faded leather make-up case, the kind of tatty item you might see on sale at a street market in a holiday destination. Stuffed inside the case is a dishevelled grey T-shirt which, when unravelled like the wrapping on some fish and chips, reveals what makes this case truly special. Inside the T-shirt lies the greatest single haul of medals the Olympics has ever seen. Seventeen races. Eight gold medals. Claimed in the space of eight short days. Olympic history not so much rewritten as scrubbed out and scrawled in giant letters on the side of Beijing's National Aquatics Centre.
The Meadowbrook pool on Cottonbrook Avenue in Baltimore is, by American standards, a fairly unremarkable complex. Once you navigate the car park in this large concrete facility your eye might be drawn to the 50m outdoor pool, built in the 1930s, which is more like something from a John Hughes movie than the breeding ground for the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.Beside that there's a kids pool with a water fountain and a playground off to one side. But it is the indoor pool that is Phelps' domain. In between toddlers learning to swim and grannies getting their exercise, as oblivious to them as they are to him, Phelps swims length after length after length with his coach Bob Bowman looking on as closely as the mothers watch their children.
"Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination," wrote Mark Twain, but the story of how Phelps found his home in the water at Meadowbrook is, if not a quest for sanity, one of escape and refuge.
As a child Phelps struggled, particularly in school where concentration on any one thing proved difficult. He couldn't sit still, couldn't focus. His mother Debbie, a teacher, was often called to see if she could offer some insight into the problems her only son was having.
On one occasion, she proposed that perhaps Michael was so difficult because he was bored by school and was possibly more advanced than his other classmates. "Oh, no, he's not gifted," was the teacher's reply.
Eventually, following a fight on the school bus with a kid who teased him about his ears, Phelps was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed Ritalin.
Wrapped up in these difficulties was his parents' acrimonious separation and subsequent divorce when he was just eight. Fred and Debbie Phelps grew up a mile apart in tiny towns with populations of barely 2,000 people. Fred was a decent high school footballer player who went to college to study physical education. Debbie was at the same high school as her future husband — a year behind — and was a cheerleader for the football team when Fred was its defensive back.
After college, Debbie began teaching home economics while Fred took a position with the Maryland State police. With the safety and security of stable jobs the young couple set about starting a family. Hilary was born in 1978, Whitney in 1980 and Michael five years later.Committed to sport
By the time Michael was suffering his ADHD problems what perhaps his family and teachers didn't realise is that he was already absorbing and observing the kind of commitment needed to compete at the highest level in sport, though at that point the smart money would have gone on one of his sisters representing their country in swimming at the Olympic Games, rather than their scrawny younger brother.
Following their divorce, Debbie became a driving force behind the sporting ambitions of the children, and the kids found a place in the pool where they could forget the trauma. Hilary earned a scholarship to the University of Richmond but was never quite good enough to make it on a national level.
Whitney was different. At 14 she was the national champion in the 200m butterfly and had designs on going to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. A back injury hampered her training and she finished sixth in the trials. Debbie has described the aftermath of that disappointment as being almost like a funeral. The pain lingered and Whitney admitted that, aside from watching Michael compete, she found it difficult to be around a pool.
Both Hilary and Whitney's experiences shaped Michael in ways that they can't even have imagined. Soon, he had packed in the Ritalin, telling his mother he no longer needed it as swimming was providing all the focus he needed and, from the age of 11, he was being coached by Bowman. As a teenager he went six years without missing a single day of training.
In his autobiography Phelps wrote of the "safe haven" he found in the pool. Bowman was in awe of what his young charge could do with his mind.
At Beijing, the number eight stalked Phelps. His own eight-medal quest was well documented and dovetailed with the Chinese reverence for a number which is said to bring good fortune. The Games themselves started on the eighth day of the eighth month at 8pm. Despite the hype Phelps was staying focused. And when the eighth gold followed in the 4x100m medley, there were screams and tears and the champion did what he always did when he finished a race. He went to his mother Debbie in the crowd.