When Michael Phelps's alarm clock went off at 6:30 on the morning of Aug. 13, 2008, he crawled out of bed in the Olympic Village in Beijing and fell right into his routine.
He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and walked to breakfast. He had already won three gold medals earlier that week – giving him nine in his career – and had two races that day. By 7 a.m., he was in the cafeteria, eating his regular race-day menu of eggs, oatmeal and four energy shakes, the first of more than 6,000 calories he would consume over the next 16 hours.
Phelps's first race – the 200-metre butterfly, his strongest event – was scheduled for 10 o'clock. Two hours before the starting gun fired, he began his usual stretching regime, starting with his arms, then his back, then working down to his ankles, which were so flexible they could extend more than 90 degrees, farther than a ballerina's en pointe. At 8:30, he slipped into the pool and began his first warm-up lap, 800 metres of mixed styles, followed by 600 metres of kicking, 400 metres pulling a buoy between his legs, 200 metres of stroke drills, and a series of 25-metre sprints to elevate his heart rate. The workout took precisely 45 minutes.
At 9:15, he exited the pool and started squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required 20 minutes of tugging to put it on. Then he clamped headphones over his ears, cranked up the hip-hop mix he played before every race, and waited.
Phelps had started swimming when he was seven years old to burn off some of the energy that was driving his mom and teachers crazy. When a local swimming coach named Bob Bowman saw Phelps's long torso, big hands and relatively short legs (which offered less drag), he knew Phelps could become a champion. But Phelps was emotional. He had trouble calming down before races. His parents were divorcing, and he had problems coping with stress. Bowman purchased a book of relaxation exercises and asked Phelps's mom to read them aloud every night. The book contained a script – “Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away” – that tensed and relaxed each part of Phelps's body before he fell asleep.
Bowman believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. Phelps, Bowman knew, had a perfect physique for the pool. That said, everyone who eventually competes at the Olympics has perfect musculature. Bowman could also see that Phelps, even at a young age, had a capacity for obsessiveness that made him an ideal athlete.
What Bowman could give Phelps, however – what would set him apart from other competitors – were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. He didn't need to control every aspect of Phelps's life. All he needed to do was target a few specific habits that had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with creating the right mindset. He designed a series of behaviours that Phelps could use to become calm and focused before each race, to find those tiny advantages that, in a sport where victory can come in milliseconds, would make all the difference.
When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and “watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.”
The videotape wasn't real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart.