TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Michael Phelps never knew he could be this happy.
Not even while winning all those gold medals.
He’s engaged. His first child, an already above-average-sized boy, is due in May. He just bought a home that looks out on the jagged, stunning mountains of the Arizona desert. His job takes him to the swimming pool almost every day, where he usually works out under blue skies and bright sunshine.
Sure, it can get a bit chilly in the winter, as it did for a recent morning practice, the telltale steam forming as the 79-degree water collided with the 40-something air.
But there are no complaints.
“I’m just in a better place now,” Phelps says, sitting in coach Bob Bowman’s office at Arizona State University after finishing up the two-hour workout. “I’m a lot happier, a lot more laid-back now. I feel like,” he adds, pausing to consider his words, “I’m in control of what I’m doing.”
That wasn’t always the case, even when he seemed like the biggest control freak on the planet, the swimming machine who turned his steadfast focus toward winning a record 18 golds and 22 medals overall at the last four Olympics.
For all the success, Phelps was still missing something.
Only after he was arrested a second time for drunken driving did he figure out what that was.
“That night happened for a reason,” Phelps says, looking back to September 2014 when he was stopped while trying to get home from a casino in his native Baltimore. “I drove that road for a reason. I mean, there are other ways for me to get home, and that’s probably the worst way to go.”
He checked into a treatment facility for six weeks. He’s not sure if he’s an alcoholic, but he vowed to stop drinking at least through the Rio Olympics, maybe for good. More important, he finally got in touch with some issues that had been pushed beneath the surface while he was on that seemingly never-ending quest for gold.
“In a way, I’m kind of blessed that happened,” Phelps says of his arrest. “Without that, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today, where I am mentally, physically, emotionally, everything.”
He began to patch up an estranged relationship with his father, which stretched back to childhood when his parents divorced. He reconnected with Nicole Johnson, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, and quickly popped the question. Then, with marriage plans on hold until after Rio, Johnson became pregnant.
While not exactly planned, Phelps was thrilled at the thought of becoming a father.
At 30, he’s finally grown up.
“This journey I’ve kind of gone on has been incredible,” Phelps says. “To let go of a lot, but also being able to gain so much. Nicole and I have never been where we are. My family has never been as close as we are. My father and I have never been (this close). That’s something I wanted as a kid.”
Phelps says he can probably count on one hand how many times he saw his father over a 20-year period.
Now, they’ve both learned to let go, focusing on the future instead of the past.
“It was not what I wanted,” Phelps says. “It’s not what any kid really wants. Being able to just share with him how I felt, and him as well, being able to share how he felt through everything, just being able to build from that is incredible.”
Phelps moved to suburban Phoenix a few months ago after Bowman — basically the only coach he’s ever had — took a job running Arizona State’s promising but underachieving swim program. The initial plan was to rent a house with his fiancee, train through the Olympics this summer, retire for the second time, get married, and then be free to live anywhere they wanted. The safe money was on him rushing back to Baltimore as quickly as possible. That’s where his family is. That’s where most of his friends are.
But Phelps fell in love with Arizona, the sun beaming day after day, the warmth of the climate and the people, the chance to get a truly fresh start. With a baby on the way, the couple recently purchased a 6,800-square-foot home in the ritzy suburb of Paradise Valley. They moved in two days before the new year.
Phelps has owned residences before.
This is the first one he could truly call a home.
“Our backyard looks right at Camelback Mountain,” he says proudly. “You go outside in our backyard and we have orange and tangerine and lemon and lime and peach and apple — all these different fruit trees growing in our backyard.”
Instead of critiquing starts, turns and split times, he prefers to talk about decorating the nursery for the family member on the way.
The crib and other baby furniture have already arrived. The rest is still a work in progress.
“We have kind of a grayish theme,” Phelps says. “We may do like a global theme, like a world map, something like that. Or we want to do a water theme. We have a couple of things in mind.”
He retired after the last Olympics, but that only lasted only about a year. Looking back, he knows it wasn’t the right way to go out, even though four golds and two silvers made him one of the biggest stars of the London Games. He didn’t train like he needed to, often staying away from the pool for weeks at a time. He could’ve been so much better.
Now, he never misses a practice. He’s swimming as well as he ever has in his life. Bowman never discusses goals, but he lets slip that Phelps has the potential to go out with career-best times in all of his individual events.
“He actually loves to swim again,” Bowman says. “He did not going into London. He actually hated it.”
Phelps will retire again after Rio, and this time he insists it will stick.
He’s already got a new gig lined up — working with Bowman’s college team as a volunteer coach.
“It will be interesting to see his transition to being a coach,” Bowman says, breaking into a smile. “He’s so knowledgeable, which will be a huge advantage. But he’ll have to learn a few things about how to communicate the knowledge he has. He’ll probably have to be a little more patient than he’d like to be.”
Phelps will likely swim six events in Rio: the 100-meter butterfly, the 200 fly, the 200 individual medley and all three relays. Bowman, with a mischievous look in his eyes, tries to create a little doubt.
“You never know,” he says, drawing out his words for effect. “There may be a surprise in there.”
These days, Phelps can take whatever is thrown his way.
He’s already been through the tough part.
“Life is absolutely amazing,” Phelps says. “It feels like a dream world.”