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Phelps' swim coach has Clover, S.C., ties

As Michael Phelps stroked his way to Olympic immortality, folks in Clover, Rock Hill and Columbia anxiously stared at their televisions.

They weren't just looking for Phelps, the American man-fish who swam his way to a record eighth gold medal over the weekend in Beijing.

They were also waiting for the camera to find Bob Bowman, a 43-year-old guy from Clover who guided Phelps to international stardom.

“We all call him Bobby, but the world calls him Bob,” said Sylvia Bowman, the coach's mother, who grew up in Clover and now lives with her husband, Lonnie, in Columbia.

Bowman's family couldn't be prouder of the man behind the champion.

“It's unbelievable,” said Jim Bowman, the coach's uncle, who lives in Rock Hill. “We're just watching every minute, watching Phelps swim, which is great. And, of course, we love to catch a glimpse of Bobby on TV.”

Like his brother, Sam Bowman has been glued to the swimming coverage on NBC, looking for his nephew.

“It's a nice feeling to know that he's part of the family,” said Sam, who still lives in Clover. “You tell everybody you see.”

Jim recently broke the news to his barber when he went in for a haircut.

“He couldn't believe that Bobby was my nephew coaching Michael Phelps,” he said. “We have a lot of fun with it.”

The family enjoys recalling how Bowman went from his small-town roots to coaching Phelps.

His parents' first child, Bowman only lived in Clover for the first few years of his life. His parents moved to Columbia so his father could finish his education at the University of South Carolina.

Bowman started swimming at a neighborhood pool as a kid and joined a youth swim team before he was a teenager.

“He was really quite good,” his mother said. “The first meet he went to, he wasn't assigned to swim. … There was a free lane, and he asked his coach to let him swim and he won.”

Sylvia Bowman didn't know what to think when her young son said he wanted to swim year-round at a local college's pool.

“Neither of us knew what in the world he meant,” she said. “We had never been around any year-long swimming. But we found out.”

Bowman's success in youth swimming programs earned him a scholarship at Florida State University. He swam competitively at the school for three years, but spent his senior year helping coach a high school team in Tallahassee, Fla.

“He says he's a much better coach than he was a swimmer,” his mother said.

Lonnie Bowman said he was somewhat surprised when his son decided to coach swimmers for a living, but he knew he'd always been driven, the kind of achiever who immersed himself in his craft.

Even Bowman's uncles knew how dedicated he was.

“He never stopped,” Sam Bowman said. “With music or swimming or trying to make his As in school.”

After college, Bowman didn't come home to Columbia much. He sought out the best coaches, people who would show him how to inspire others. His quest took him to swim teams in Alabama, California, Nevada and Ohio.

“We just accepted the fact that he was always going to be somewhere else,” his mother said.

Bowman eventually came to Baltimore, Phelps' hometown.

“He hadn't really been there too long,” Sylvia Bowman recalled. “I remember him saying that there was a little kid in the group below his that could really swim.”

Phelps became Bowman's student when he was 11 years old.

“Bob's had a big part to play in Michael's life,” Sylvia Bowman said. “He was just always involved.”

Bowman not only coached Phelps, he was there to help outside of swimming, driving him to school or to the orthodontist.

But his most documented success with Phelps has been in the pool, where he held the young man to rigorous standards.

“He and Michael went for years and never took a day off,” Sylvia Bowman said. “We spent Christmas with him one time in Baltimore and we went to the pool and worked out while they swam on Christmas Day. They figured … they'd have a practice in that somebody else wouldn't.”

Lonnie and Sylvia Bowman know that kind of intense devotion is why their son has enjoyed such success. It's why their relatives, some in their 70s and 80s, have recently stayed up late to watch the 23-year-old Phelps swim, and why friends called after those races were over to congratulate them.

And, of course, it's why they have the joy of watching Bobby, a Clover boy, coaching on the world's grandest sports stage.

“It certainly does make us feel proud,” Bowman's mother said of seeing her son on TV. “Not only that, (but) appreciative of the recognition because we know he deserves it.”