Phelps joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at age seven, and four years later Bob Bowman became his coach there. Bowman says Phelps was exceptional right away. "He's physically superior in terms of flexibility and feel for the water," Bowman said. "Also, and most important, he has an incredible ability to relax and focus under pressure -- you can't coach that."
Phelps appeared at the 1996 Olympic Trials as a 10-year-old, not to swim but to support his sister, Whitney. When she finished sixth in the 200m butterfly final and missed making the team, the family cried in the stands. "It left a scar on our family," Michael says. Whitney's career was cut short by four herniated discs, but Michael says he lives by her example. From the time he was little, he remembers how he would hear her door shut and the car start before dawn as she made her way to practice. Phelps has another sister, Hillary, who swam for the University of Richmond. Also dating a swimmer from California named Margaret.
But with his masculine adult body, fit as for a swimmers body, Phelps turned professional almost two years before graduating from high school, when he signed a reported six-figure contract with Speedo in October 2001. "It was definitely a long thought process," Phelps says of the unusual decision to forgo his college eligibility. With his first earnings Phelps wanted a new Cadillac Escalade, but his mom wouldn't let him get it, so he settled for a used 2000 model. Part of Phelps' deal calls for money to be set aside for college tuition. He plans on attending the University of Michigan after Athens, where he will train with his coach, Bob Bowman. This fall Bowman takes over the Big Ten school's swim program.