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Michael Phelps Finds Renewed Vigor In Qualifying For Final Olympics

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're just a month away from the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the city is struggling to pull everything together in time. We'll hear about that in a moment. In the U.S., things are going more smoothly as the teams are being chosen. At the swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., 31-year-old Michael Phelps is racing against many younger competitors for what he says will be his last Olympics. He has a few more events, but he qualified earlier this week by winning a race that he described as probably the hardest swim of his career. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

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TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: You could forgive Michael Phelps for feeling ho-hum about medal ceremonies, like this one at the trials Wednesday night. He has smiled and waved through so many - 22 at the Olympics, 18 of them for gold medals. But Wednesday night, his toothy grin was toothier than ever. More telling, his coach of two decades, Bob Bowman, stood nearby and did something he'd never done through all the trumpet fanfares.

BOB BOWMAN: This is the first time I cried, so this is what it means to me.

GOLDMAN: Phelps' win in the 200-meter butterfly qualified him for Rio - his fifth Olympic Games, more than any other American male swimmer. But that accomplishment was only part of the reason for the grinning and crying. In Phelps' and Bowman's joint press conference afterwards, Phelps hijacked this question posed to Bowman.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Bob, what does five-time Olympian mean to you?

MICHAEL PHELPS: It means we've been through a hell of a lot together.

BOWMAN: It does.

PHELPS: Jesus.

GOLDMAN: Obviously, they've been through incredible triumphs, none more so than in 2008, when Phelps reached the pinnacle of his athletic life, all of it captured by NBC cameras.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: But new world record and gold medal number-one at these Beijing games.

GOLDMAN: His record eight gold medals in Beijing represented the sweet spot of his prime. Bowman told The New York Times Phelps probably should have retired after that, but there was pressure from all around to keep going. Phelps did. And for a while, he kept smashing records.

But also, it was a period of controversy and discord. A photo emerged of Phelps smoking pot. Phelps and Bowman often clashed over Phelps' lack of interest in training. Phelps still won six medals at the 2012 Games in London. But when he retired after that, a troubled life continued.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Michael Phelps walks into district court in Brooklyn Friday morning with his lawyers and family as he prepares to plead guilty to drunk driving.

GOLDMAN: His DUI arrest two years ago was his second. The first was when he was 19. This one prompted him to enter a treatment facility for six weeks. The experience was life-changing. Among other things, it helped Phelps repair a broken relationship with his dad. His parents divorced when Phelps was nine.

At an Olympic media gathering this spring in Los Angeles, a relaxed, post-treatment Phelps talked about getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, the birth of their first child and the effects of not drinking alcohol for more than a year.

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PHELPS: I'm actually happy every day. I'm actually able to be productive. I think that's something that I am very proud of.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: He's going to touch the wall first - 1:54:84. The first man to make five Olympic teams, Michael Phelps.

GOLDMAN: Phelps' recovery culminated with the 200 butterfly in Omaha. Thrilled with the result, he wasn't happy with the actual race. Phelps says he didn't feel good, and the winning time was more than three seconds slower than the world record he set in 2009. Asked afterwards whether those times are gone for good, Phelps and Bowman disagreed - certainly not a first in their sometimes-stormy relationship. Bowman, speaking first, implied the record-smashing days are over.

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BOWMAN: Some of those records...

PHELPS: Some of them are just ridiculous.

BOWMAN: Now only were you in the suit, but you were in your prime of your prime, and everything was going right. So it's kind of, you know, a different situation.

PHELPS: I don't know. I think any record is beatable.

BOWMAN: Yeah, at some point.

PHELPS: Phelps' eye roll was visible from the back of the room. The two will work together over the next month to get Phelps ready and, they hope, justify his decision to come back for a final Olympics to see if the new Michael Phelps can be the old one, one last time in Rio. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.