SACO – A little over a year after collecting his record 22nd Olympic medal in the last race of his competitive swimming career, Michael Phelps fulfilled a 12-year-old promise to his agent by coming to Maine for his first taste of lobster.
Phelps arrived in Portland Saturday and extended his stay until Wednesday morning with Peter Carlisle, the managing director of Octagon’s Olympic and Action Sports division. They played nine holes at Nonesuch Golf Course in Scarborough; grilled steaks, asparagus and lobster tails at Sebago Lake; twice breakfasted at Becky’s Diner in Portland; cruised around the islands of Casco Bay and, following a company outing called “The Octagon Olympics” in which Phelps swam a short and shivering ocean leg of a relay race, enjoyed a lobster bake in Cape Elizabeth.
“I’ve had a blast,” said Phelps, who sported a vintage black Baltimore Orioles cap with a gold O above its brim and several days’ growth of black whiskers. “We walked around the Old Port went out on a boat, saw a bunch of seals playing and jumping all over the place.”
A waitress at Becky’s didn’t believe Phelps when he confirmed his identity.
“I was like, ‘You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but that’s what my mother named me.”‘
As he left the restaurant Tuesday morning with Carlisle, Phelps heard one waitress say to another, ‘That’s not him. No way.’ As soon as he walked out the door, he sent out a tweet: “So far I’ve had 2 meals from #beckysdiner while I’ve been up in Portland. Hmmm where else should I try?”
Phelps swam in the lake as well as the ocean — “When he said Sebago was cold, I knew he was in trouble,” Carlisle said — but one of the primary reasons for his visit was to check out the four 9-by-18-foot spas housed in the same Saco building as the Octagon offices and the OA Performance Center, adjacent to the MHG Ice Centre.
The spas — think treadmills for swimmers — are part of the Michael Phelps Skill Center, a pilot program designed to supplement the Olympian’s swim school in Baltimore and his five-pronged IM program, which is run in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
IM refers both to Individual Medley — Phelps’s favorite event — and the self-affirming I AM. The five branches (or bubbles) of the program all follow the words I am: Safe (comfort and confidence in the water), Fun (recreation), Fast (technique and form), Healthy (wellness and nutrition), Successful (goal-setting program).
“One of the reasons we started the IM program to help kids become water safe,” Phelps said, “is that there are too many kids under the age of 14 who are drowning.”
Indeed, after motor vehicle accidents, drowning is the most common cause of childhood death.
Teaching kids to swim in a spa, where water temperature and current can be regulated and cameras above, below and to the side can provide instant visual feedback, is one aspect of the Skill Center. Other aims are to attract competitive swimmers, recreational and fitness swimmers, triathletes and patients of Orthopaedic Associates — a partner in the venture — in need of aquatic therapy.
“We’re still very much in the mode of testing and trying to figure out what works,” Carlisle said. “It’s still in the developmental stage, but we know we can do the (instructional) programming really efficiently.”
On Tuesday in Saco, Phelps met first with a dozen local swim coaches to extol the benefits of bringing to their athletes the same sort of technology Phelps used with his own coach, Bob Bowman. Later, Phelps met with five children from the Portland Boys & Girls Club, one of six incubation sites for his IM program.
He answered questions, posed for photos and signed autographs for both groups.
The kids wanted to know how long he could hold his breath (about two minutes), his height (6-foot-4) and when he learned to swim (at age 7, and he didn’t want to put his face underwater or venture into the deep end). He told them about his Monday ocean dip. “It was so cold,” he said. “My whole body was numb when I got out.”
The coaches wanted to know more about his training, his future, and if he still swims.
“I’m a very visual learner,” said Phelps, who peeled off his clothes, put on a suit, and gave a demonstration of the spa. He said a similar model helped him regain a feel for the freestyle stroke between the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.
“When I was able to see what I was doing right or wrong with my hands and how my elbows were, it allowed me to break it down easier,” he said. “It was very quick and very easy for me to be able to get back to the freestyle that I knew how to swim that was giving me success.”
Rob Hale, the Greely High swim coach, asked if Phelps might consider coaching now that his competitive days are done.
“After seeing everything that I put my coach through, I really can’t see myself being put through that by some other kid,” Phelps said. “I know how brutal I was to Bob.”
Kerry Chamberlain, who coaches at Massabesic High, already knew about the benefits of the Skill Center. Her son, Collin, a rising senior, has been a regular since it opened in the spring.
“To be able to isolate that swimmer and what they’re doing in the water, and to be able to make those corrections one-on-one at the time it’s happening, is just an incredible opportunity,” Chamberlain said.
Carlisle said he thinks the center may see its biggest draw come from the triathlon community. Organizers concerned about first-time triathletes making open-water swims in cold, choppy, crowded conditions could send them to a facility capable of simulating such an atmosphere.
He also envisions such spas — which run somewhere between $15,000 to $35,000 — as an option for municipalities, swim clubs or schools that don’t have funding for a pool. First, however, he’d like to see every Boys & Girls Club in the country embrace the IM program.
“One of the first things I said to Peter was, ‘Let’s change the sport of swimming and take it to another level,”‘ Phelps said.
But why here? Why Maine?
“This is where Peter started everything and Peter and I have been working together for a long time and we’ve been able to do a lot,” he said. “I think it’s a great starting point and we’ll see where we can go from here.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: