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Phelps looks to life outside the pool at ASU

Phelps enjoying blue skies and sunshine at ASU as he works toward Rio Olympics.
Olympic champ Phelps looks to life after competition as a coach at ASU.
Time at ASU is making Michael Phelps happy.
February 9, 2016

After Rio Olympics, champion wants to coach beside his mentor

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

Arizona’s blue skies and sunshine have been a tonic for Michael Phelps, the best swimmer in the world.

Phelps, whose 22 Olympic medals are a record, has been training at Arizona State University since last summer. He followed his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who is in his first season as head coach of the Sun Devils swim teams.

The beautiful weather and scenery have brought a peacefulness to Phelps, who is not only preparing to swim in his fourth Olympic games this summer but also is charting a course for his retirement from competition. The most decorated American swimmer will join Bowman on the pool deck as a volunteer assistant coach for the Sun Devils next fall.

“It would be hard for me to say my life could be any better than it is today, so I followed him here and we decided to finish my career in the sun,” Phelps said. “I grew up indoors. I swam indoors my whole career. Once we moved here, that’s when it sunk in that I have a clearer head when I’m outside. Being able to see the sun every day is something that’s beneficial.

“I don’t think I’ve been in a bad mood once since I’ve been here.”

Michael Phelps prepares to train
under the guidance of his coach
Bob Bowman at the Mona Plummer
Aquatic Center at ASU.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Phelps, who has spent his career training in Baltimore and Michigan, has immersed himself in the Sun Devil life these past few weeks. He wore his swimsuit and several of his 22 medals in the “Curtain of Distraction” at a men’s basketball game in January. Last week, he drew a big crowd when he swam in an exhibition during the meet against the University of Arizona.

His social-media posts show him relaxed and enjoying the sunny Arizona winter with his fiancée, who’s expecting their first child later this year. He said he's amazed every day by the spectacular view of Camelback from his house in Paradise Valley.

But it was his unbreakable bond with Bowman that drew him to ASU, and will set him on his path after the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

“From day one, Bob taught me so much that I’m so thankful for,” said Phelps, who was 11 when Bowman started coaching him. “We spent so much time at the pool, but it wasn’t just swimming he was teaching me. He was mentoring me for everything that was coming my way.

“With the amount of knowledge that Bob and I have about this sport — and the amount of passion — the opportunities are endless for what can happen here.”

After nearly two decades together as coach and athlete, it will be a change for the two men.

"It would be a different dynamic between Bob and I on the pool deck together. It’s always been me in the water and him on the deck," Phelps said.

Bowman believes that Phelps will make the sometimes-tricky transition from star athlete to coach.

“Besides being the best swimmer who ever swam, he knows more about the sport than anyone,” Bowman said. “He studies the trends and the techniques. He’s worked through cutting-edge techniques for quite awhile.”

Bowman said that when he saw Phelps in the pool nearly two decades ago, he noticed his “unbelievable competitiveness.” And he quickly guided him on the path to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.

“He knows what the process is all about, and he’ll be able to transmit that information to our student athletes,” said Bowman, who will be the head coach for the U.S. national swim team at the Olympics in Rio.

And Phelps is ready to share his hard-won wisdom of life in and out of the pool.

“With these college kids, I remember exactly when I was their age and what I was doing. Hopefully I can make them better swimmers and better people,” said the 30-year-old.

Not that it’s easy.

“There are multiple things that Bob will ask me to do where at times I don’t know what he’s talking about or I don’t know why we’re doing it,” Phelps said. “But I have trust in what he says.”

The two work every day on inching closer to success in Rio. There are goals to hit every day, every week and every month.

"It's all about the process," Bowman said. "I want to make sure that on days like today, we're getting the practice in, taking the time we need to take and fixing the things that need to be fixed because once you get to the the big event, there's not much I can do besides smile and get them to the race on time."

Phelps says he can tell when Bowman has pre-race jitters.

"If we're not fully prepared, it's on us," Phelps said.

"But I feel it," Bowman interjected.

Their relationship has had its ups and downs, but both say it’s now the best it has ever been.

“We’re both in a happy place,” Phelps said. “We’re now at the point where we’re enjoying what we’re doing and it allows us to relax and have fun."

Still, Phelps said the move to ASU has caused him to reflect on certain aspects of his past with the coach.

“I asked him why we didn’t come to an outdoor pool years ago.”

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ASU professor continues to find surprises in studies in Uganda chimp project.
Less than 300,000 chimps in the wild; those numbers are expected to drop.
February 10, 2016

ASU primatologist continues to find surprises in a chimpanzee stronghold in Uganda

Kevin Langergraber has been studying chimpanzees in the wild for 15 years.

Before he became a professor and had to teach eight months out of the year, he’d spend six months to a year at a time in the field, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The most surprising thing about the job is that you can still be surprised by the job,” said Langergraber, a primatologist and assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeThe School of Human Evolution and Social Change is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at Arizona State University.

“After a while you’d think, ‘OK — I’ve spent thousands of hours watching these guys. What is going to surprise me when I wake up and spend my 12-hour day in the forest?’ ” he said. “Despite all this time I’m still shocked when I go back and the chimps show me something I hadn’t seen before.”

Langergraber, who has been at ASU for a year and a half, co-directs the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project in Kibale National Park, Uganda, home to the largest wild chimp community in the world. About 200 individuals live in the 35-square-kilometer preserve in the middle of the 800-square-kilometer national park. The community has been studied since 1995.

An adult chimp.

Django, an adult male
chimp in the Ngogo
Chimpanzee Project
in Kibale National
Park, Uganda.
Top: Penelope, an
adult chimp, with
her female infant,

Photos by Kevin

One big surprise came last summer. In the beginning of the season, food was lean. When food supplies are down, chimps are hard to find because they split into tiny groups to forage. But food availability crept up, to the point where three of their favorite fruits ripened at the same time.

“They basically had more food than they knew what to do with at this point,” Langergraber said. “It was falling off the trees and sitting on the ground uneaten.”

About 30 adult females with 60 kids congregated. “There were these huge parties, these huge hordes of chimpanzees, which was very unusual, especially for females, which are more solitary than male chimpanzees,” he said. “They began exhibiting really male-like behavior.”

Chimps hunt monkeys, but it’s almost always done by males, in groups. Females do hunt, but much less than males.

“(The females) started going on this little mini-hunting binge, where they were hunting almost every day over the course of a few weeks,” Langergraber said. “That is something I’d never expected to see in my life. … I’ve been there for 15 years, and this is something out of the blue I think will be important for learning about why in general is it males hunt more than females and questions like that.”

Chimpanzees are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They’re endangered throughout their range across equatorial Africa. The IUCN estimates there are less than 300,000 chimps in the wild, according to a rough estimate made in 2003. Those numbers are expected to drop.

“Due to high levels of exploitation, loss of habitat and habitat quality due to expanding human activities, this species is estimated to have experienced a significant population reduction in the past 20 to 30 years, and it is suspected that this reduction will continue for the next 30 to 40 years,” the IUCN Red List said on its website.

“Kibale National Park is probably the last stronghold of chimpanzees in the country of Uganda,” Langergraber said. “We don’t know how exactly how many chimps are there.”

Chimpanzees are hard to count. They live in communities with permanent members, but it’s like a university — you never see the whole community in one place at one time. Chimps make nests every night to sleep in. Counting the nests has been the way the population size is estimated — anywhere from 800 to 1,000 in Kibale.

“We know these nest surveys aren’t terribly accurate,” Langergraber said. “One of the things I’m doing in my research is to really find out how many chimpanzees are in Kibale National Park. We’re doing that through a genetic census.”

Park anti-poaching patrols pick up chimp feces on their patrols. Langergraber does genetic analyses of the samples.

“Then you get a genetic fingerprint for that individual,” he said. “We’re doing this over time. It’s a long-term process. We’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. Based on how many times you’re collecting the same individual over again, versus an entirely new individual you haven’t seen before, you can get an estimate of the population size.”

It’s much more accurate than counting nests.

“Our preliminary results suggests there may be twice as many chimpanzees living in Kibale National Park as we previously thought,” he said. “They’re doing well in Kibale, for now.”

Poaching is widespread throughout the whole park. Eating chimpanzee is actually taboo in this part of Uganda, but poachers go after bush pig and duikers — tiny forest antelope — and chimps become caught in the snares. “They’ll spear it and feed it to their hunting dogs,” Langergraber said. “Poaching has increased, especially for larger game, like elephants.”

The research presence in Ngogo wards poachers away from that area of the park. Two three-person snare-removal teams — ex-poachers lured from the life with good stable jobs — patrol Ngogo in conjunction with local wildlife-authority officers.

A scientist in a forest. “Our guys work with the (Uganda Wildlife Authority) rangers, who have guns, which really helps to protect the park,” said Langergraber (pictured left). The project hopes to hire a third team for patrols.

Research with chimpanzees is long-term. Chimps are long-lived and slow-producing — one infant every five years.

“That makes them very difficult to study,” Langergraber said. “Just now chimpanzee researchers have been out there long enough to really document the whole lifespans of chimpanzees. In particular one of the things we’re interested in in evolutionary biology is what determines which individuals are reproductively successful. ... Things like that are important stuff that’s coming up now and in the future.”

There are multiple chimps at Ngogo more than 60 years old, including one very rare great-grandmother.

“We’ve got a bunch of old ladies running around the forest there,” Langergraber said. “It’s a good place to be a chimp, Ngogo.”