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Phelps & Bowman: A partnership like no other

Saturday - 8/4/2012, 4:35pm  ET

AP National Writer

LONDON (AP) - Bob Bowman has been there every step of the way for Michael Phelps _ through all the gold medals, world records, championships and, yes, even the occasional missteps.

They forged one of the most unique relationships in all of sports, a coach who took the child of recently divorced parents under his wing at age 11 and nurtured him to greatness in the pool. Along the way, they've yelled and screamed at each other and butted heads from time to time. They also developed an enduring relationship that surely will last a lifetime, even with Phelps retiring after his final race of the Olympics on Saturday.

Phelps has never considered working with another coach, a truly remarkable bond in the finicky world of sports, where it's common for athletes to switch up their coaches on a regular basis, to work with someone new when there's the slightest slump in performance or simply a need to have someone new in their ear, doling out advice.

Tiger Woods, for instance, is on his third coach since turning pro.

It's impossible to imagine Phelps with anyone other than Bowman.

"Bob knows Michael like the back of his hand," said Phelps' mother, Debbie. "Michael knows Bob's going to get him where he needs to be not only in the pool, but life."

She chokes up a bit, knowing how important the 47-year-old Bowman has been to her son. It would be easy to say he became a father figure to Phelps after his parents divorced and his dad largely fell out of his life. But, really, their relationship runs even deeper than that, working well on many levels _ athlete-coach, parent-child, business partners, best friends.

"We have a great relationship," Phelps said. "Obviously, we have our days on and off where we can get at each other, but I think the biggest thing is we're both very passionate people, and that's why we've worked so well together over the last couple of ... well, a long time. Geez."

While Phelps is extremely guarded about who he lets into his inner circle, and reticent about revealing too many of his emotions to the outside world, there are no secrets between these two. They love to poke at each other _ Bowman knowing just what to say to get under Phelps' skin, the swimmer throwing the occasional tantrum but usually going along with whatever the coach wants him to do.

"We both love what we do and we want to be the best we can," Phelps said. "I trust him. When I was 11 years old, I trusted him. I don't know why I did then, but I did."

"You were brave," Bowman quipped.

While Bowman describes himself as a mediocre swimmer _ he competed at Florida State in the 1980s _ his real knack was teaching others how to swim. His hard-nosed methods aren't for everyone. Katie Hoff switched to Bowman after the 2008 Olympics but was too sensitive to stand up to his verbal berating. Phelps seems to thrive on it, spurred on to prove his coach wrong when he doles out a tongue-lashing.

"It works," Phelps said. "I have full trust in him, and he has been the one person that's got me where I am today. He's the best coach for me."

There's no disputing the results.

Phelps is the winningest Olympian in history and captured his 18th gold medal in his final race, the 4x100-meter medley relay. That would leave him with twice as many golds as anyone else. In all, he's captured 22 medals, plus a staggering 26 long-course world championships in off-Olympic years.

By the numbers, no one comes close _ a tribute to the athlete, first and foremost, but also to his coach.

"I would say the reason we have so well together is that we are both absolutely honest with each other all the time," Bowman said. "We know exactly where each other stands at all times. That can mean some fireworks sometimes, because neither one of us likes to back down on anything. But I think that's the deal. We don't really play any games. We just keep it simple."

That's the way Phelps likes it.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about their relationship is how so little seems to have changed over the years.

Sure, Phelps has grown from a boy to a man, maturing a lot but also stumbling along the way _ a drunken-driving arrest in 2004, a three-month suspension by USA Swimming in 2009 after he was pictured inhaling from a marijuana pipe. Both insist there is more of an equal partnership, with Phelps exerting more control over his life and his training regimen.

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