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Sportsman

Sportsman of the Year: Michael Phelps

The party of the year in the swimming world took place not in Beijing's Water Cube in August but in a New York City hotel ballroom the week before Thanksgiving. The occasion was the Golden Goggle Awards, the Oscars of the amphibious set, and most of the 43 members of the U.S. Olympic swim team turned out for the splashy event. With their short skirts, high heels and ripped biceps the women were visions of powerful femininity. The dudes wore their tuxedos ironically, with shaggy hair and bow ties askew. Before the awards show began, there was a rip-roaring cocktail hour. The view of midtown Manhattan from the ballroom revealed the grand old Ziegfeld Theatre, which on this night was hosting a red-carpet premiere for the latest overwrought Hollywood drama. Despite the constellation of paparazzi flashes the assembled actors couldn't match the star power at the Golden Goggles.

Mingling with a cocktail crowd that had paid as much as $1,250 a ticket to attend was Dara Torres, swimming's answer to Diane Lane -- a woman who only gets better as she gets older. Aaron Peirsol, in a rakish beard, was projecting the most laid-back California cool this side of Owen Wilson. Jason Lezak, with his intensity and receding hairline, called to mind a young Ed Harris. All the assembled team members had starring roles of varying magnitude in the blockbuster swim competition at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, but as the cocktail hour wore on, the 850 guests began scanning the crowd with increasing anxiety, searching for the one swimmer who was noticeably absent. Finally, an escalating buzz turned into a low roar, announcing the belated arrival of Michael Phelps.

Four beefy security guards couldn't hold off the crowd that instantly engulfed the 23-year-old Phelps. Middle-aged women dripping diamonds elbowed and snarled their way through the masses, desperately seeking his autograph. Teenage boys tugged at Phelps's elbow, hoping to get him to look their way for a snapshot. Phelps is undeniably a superstar now, but it is in the Jimmy Stewart vein -- an unassuming everyman with whom others feel a strong kinship. Despite the surrounding bedlam Phelps, in a custom-made Armani tux, seemed to glide effortlessly through the throng, accommodating as many fans as possible between stops to warmly embrace his Olympic teammates.

Phelps remains an ordinary kid suddenly leading an extraordinary life, and he works hard to maintain some balance. His agents always ensure that there is security on hand to help him navigate big public appearances, but otherwise Phelps likes to travel unencumbered; that morning he had taken a train up from Baltimore by himself, only partially disguised by a droopy, Spitzian mustache that he was overly proud of (and later would be crestfallen to have to shave off to look presentable for the awards show). Phelps sat undisturbed in a commuter car as he fiddled around on a laptop with a Wi-Fi card, and upon arriving in New York he made his way through Penn Station and flagged down a yellow cab on the street without a single autograph request, a 21st-century Mr. Smith arriving in his Washington, with iPod. "You can't stop living your life," he says. Watch Behind the Scenes video of the Michael Phelps SI Sportsman cover shoot

Once the Golden Goggle ceremonies began, Phelps was seated between his mother, Debbie, and his older sister Hilary, who in the Beijing drama were supporting actresses, watched voyeuristically by TV cameras as they lived and died in the stands with every race. The Goggles began with a rousing Olympic highlights package shown on huge screens at the front of the ballroom. "To this day I'm not sure the magnitude of what happened over there has hit me," says Phelps, and here was another chance to relive it. As the unforgettable images from Beijing played out, Debbie rubbed her son's back softly, and she and Hilary and Michael occasionally exchanged long, meaningful glances. By the time the video was over, enough emotion had been summoned that all three Phelpses were blinking back tears.

To the surprise of no one, Phelps collected much of the hardware, accepting the awards for Male Athlete of the Year, Male Performance of the Year and Relay of the Year with heartfelt speeches in which he thanked his family, coach Bob Bowman and his teammates, and expressed how proud he was to wear the Stars and Stripes. But asked later to pick out the highlight of the evening, Phelps didn't hesitate: "Having a relatively peaceful dinner with my mom and sister. That never happens anymore."

No sooner had the awards program ended than a mob of Sharpie- and camera-phone-wielding guests encircled Phelps, knowing this was their last chance to take home a piece of him. When a chair was knocked over in the crush, the hired muscle grabbed Phelps and hustled him out of the building. He didn't even have time to say a proper goodbye to his mom, who looked around the ballroom and wondered aloud, "What just happened here?"

What happened is that for eight days in August, Debbie Phelps's son turned the Beijing Olympics into a serialized thriller with nightly installments that played out in prime time. Eight gold medals and seven world records would have been more than enough to secure his stardom, but Phelps's performance was made all the more unforgettable by two images for the ages: his primal scream punctuating an improbable U.S. comeback in the 4­x100-meter freestyle relay on the second night of coverage, and the heart-stopping, fingertip-bending photo finish in the 100 butterfly for his penultimate gold. In the midst of a contentious presidential election and the first signs of a faltering economy, Phelps brought Americans together by the tens of millions, the TV serving as a portal to a faraway land and the outer limits of athletic achievement.

As a spectator sport swimming has always resided in the margins, and even during the Olympics it is often overshadowed by gymnastics and track. But in China, Phelps turned his every race into can't-miss television. "The Beijing Olympics was the most watched event in American history," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, referring to the 215 million U.S. viewers who tuned in over 17 days, "and it was almost entirely because of this wunderkind from Baltimore. What he accomplished transcended sport and became a cultural phenomenon."

With the finals of Phelps's races broadcast live between 10 and 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, "swim hangover" became an acceptable excuse for showing up late for work. And Phelps dominated the daylight hours as well. In office cubicles and dorm rooms and Wi-Fi'd coffee shops tech-savvy sports fans monitored Phelps's early-morning heat results and downloaded his races. During the Games nbcolympics.com logged 1.3 billion page views and 75 million viewings of video clips; among the 10,000 Olympic competitors, Phelps accounted for 20% of all athlete-specific traffic.

Phelpsmania was felt most acutely in the hometown that gave rise to a provincial nickname -- the Baltimore Bullet -- that he has since outgrown. Baltimore had the highest Olympic television ratings of any market in the country on the night of his first final, and when Phelps swam for his record eighth gold the city's NBC affiliate drew a 59 share. (Three out of every five televisions in the metropolitan area were tuned to the Games.) Phelps's march on history became a communal event: When a Baltimore Ravens preseason game was due to end about half an hour before Phelps's final race of the Games, the club invited fans to stick around M&T Bank Stadium to watch their hero on the JumboTron. Thousands did, and even the baddest man in Baltimore got caught up in the spectacle. "I could feel it in my insides," says linebacker Ray Lewis. "It was amazing to see that, to watch someone who has made their mind up to be that great. It was an electric moment."

Merely watching him wasn't enough for those Baltimore fans who needed something tangible to bring them closer to the story. One supplicant showed up at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, where Phelps competed growing up, and asked to dip a vial in the pool, to take home a few ounces of this holy water. Those seeking sustenance flocked to Phelps's favorite greasy spoon, Pete's Grille, where his traditional pretraining breakfast was offered during the Olympics as a $19.95 special: a three-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, three chocolate-chip pancakes and three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions and mayo. "Usually it was a group of people who'd order it," says Dave Stahl, the owner of Pete's Grille. "The one guy who tried it by himself complained of pretty serious stomach pain."

Phelps's calorie intake may seem superhuman, and his 6' 4", 185-pound body may recall Greek statuary, but fans are also drawn to him by a goofy grin and oversized ears that led to his being called Spock on the school bus. (He was also teased about a slight lisp he still has and is self-conscious about.) Being a prodigy in the pool since an early age did not translate into a carefree life. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in sixth grade, Phelps felt embarrassed to have to slink to the nurse's office each day to take his Ritalin. (He weaned himself off the drug, with his doctor's blessing, after a year.) He was also deeply affected by his parents' divorce when he was seven, and ever since he has had only infrequent contact with his father; Fred Phelps, who lives in Baltimore, was not in Beijing.

That Michael Phelps turns out to be imperfect is what made it so easy to think of him as one of us, only with a better dolphin kick. Says Debbie, "Michael was invited into people's homes night after night -- into their living rooms, to the dinner table with them, into their bedrooms. They lived with him and his quest, and it became a very personal relationship."

The American public became so smitten with Phelps that NBC announced it will offer the first-ever live coverage of swimming's world championships next summer and also will broadcast the U.S. nationals in '09, '10 and '11. "When Michael was 15, he told me he wanted to change the sport of swimming," says Cathy Lears Bennett, the instructor for Meadowbrook's swim school who taught a seven-year-old Phelps to swim. "It was like, Yeah, right, who told you to say that, kid? But he's always had a vision that swimming could become important to American fans."

It is for elevating his sport -- and all of us out of our seats -- with a beguiling grace and humility that SI honors Phelps with its 55th Sportsman of the Year award. "It was a pretty good year," Phelps said at the Golden Goggles. "Hopefully there's more to come." There is so much more. The 2012 London Olympics beckon, but going forward Phelps's legacy will no longer be measured in medals.

It is 8 a.m. on a Sunday in north Baltimore, and the deserted streets are buffeted by a bitter November wind. All the kids are inside; no doubt some are still snoozing and others are watching cartoons or playing video games, but in the steamy indoor pool at Meadowbrook six dozen diehards, ages 11 to 19, in LONDON 2012 caps are streaking back and forth, a riot of churning arms and legs creating a cacophony of shouting and splashing. Prowling the pool deck is Bob Bowman, gulping coffee and seemingly monitoring every swimmer at once. To the untrained eye all of the kids look pretty much the same as they turn their laps, but Bowman says, "I can show you which ones are the five-star talents, the four-star, the no-star...."

He stops to bark at some boys roughhousing on the edge of the pool. After they settle down, Bowman says, "Ten years ago that would have been Michael."

"Pushing kids into the pool? That's nothing," says Phelps. "I got busted for much worse than that."

It was at Meadowbrook in 1996 that Phelps, an unbridled 11-year-old, met his match in Bowman, a onetime college swimmer who was channeling his considerable passion into coaching the competitive team that trained there, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Though no one in the Phelps camp likes to use the term, Bowman became a father figure to young Michael, and the importance of that relationship helps explain Phelps's strong feelings for Meadowbrook. "There were a lot of friends and some very good role models for him here," says Lears Bennett, who began teaching at Meadowbrook in '64, when she was 13, and remains the director of its learn-to-swim program. "It was a safe place for him. There was a comfort, a familiarity. He felt good about himself here."

The Bowman-Phelps bond long ago transcended a teacher-student relationship. At the Golden Goggles, as he was accepting his third straight Coach of the Year award, Bowman tried to put into words his feelings for Phelps. When he choked up, he merely patted his heart and it was all he could do to say four words: "Michael, I love you."

Since the Olympics their relationship has taken on another dimension, as they are the only partners in Aquatic Ventures, LLC, which last month took a controlling interest in Meadowbrook and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. When Bowman left Meadowbrook after the 2004 Athens Olympics to become men's coach at the University of Michigan, Phelps (who had won the first six of his Olympic-record 14 career golds at those Games) followed him, and Ann Arbor remained their training base through Beijing. Afterward, Phelps felt the pull of home, and Bowman followed him back to Baltimore. Meadowbrook is where Bowman will train Phelps for the 2012 Olympics, and they have grand plans for a 78-year-old facility that has a lot of character (a polite way of putting it). "We want to turn it into one of the best places to train in the country," says Phelps. "We want to attract the best swimmers, have the best facilities, the best environment. Bob and I want the best of everything. That's just our personalities."

There is plenty of aesthetic work to be done, but even with a 50-meter outdoor pool that is open from Memorial Day through September, Meadowbrook can't accommodate many new swimmers; there are already 1,000 year-round family memberships and another 500 or so in the summer. When Phelps resumes serious training next month, he will sometimes find himself in a lane next to kids in swim diapers or seniors trying to loosen up arthritic joints. Locally, there has been a lot of speculation about the possibility of Aquatic Ventures' buying a boarded-up ice rink that abuts the property; knock down the rink and the land would offer Meadowbrook enough space to add a couple of new pools. All Phelps will say is that "there are a million ideas right now, and it is going to take a little time to sort everything out."

But turning Meadowbrook into a destination for elite swimmers is only part of Phelps's vision. Increasing participation rates among kids around the country and expanding their access to the water is one of the primary goals of the nascent Michael Phelps Foundation, the seed money for which came from Phelps's donating the $1 million bonus Speedo gave him for winning his record eight golds. At the Golden Goggles the host USA Swimming Foundation played a video that cited drowning as the second-leading cause of accidental death among five- to 14-year-olds in the U.S. Listening intently, Phelps responded with a few violent shakes of his head that could have been roughly translated as, Not on my watch. "Hearing that, it's shocking," he says. "It needs to change. The reason I started swimming was water safety, pure and simple. I have a passion for keeping kids safe. My mission is to teach as many as I can to swim. It's not about chasing medals -- you never know when you're going to be put in a situation that's life or death."

Phelps has long gravitated toward children. Going back to his early high school years he was a regular celebrity guest at the Boys and Girls Club in Aberdeen, Md. "Children know if you're not being real with them, and they respond to Michael because everything he does is from the heart," says Darlene Lilly, who oversees the Aberdeen club. "A few years ago we had an event to honor him, and he seemed so happy after all the cameras and all the adults left because he got to go into the gym with the kids and play basketball, Foosball and all sorts of games for what seemed like hours."

Perhaps because he was regularly hazed by the older swimmers he competed against -- during practice a couple of the bigger boys would toss him from lane to lane like a beach ball -- Phelps has a knack for befriending those who might benefit from a little extra attention. He has long been close to Mason Surhoff, 16, who is autistic and who trains at Meadowbrook to swim the 50 and 100 freestyle and 50 back in the Special Olympics. Phelps invented a game in which Mason wears a Velcro belt that attaches to a rubber resistance cord. While a brawny adult stands on one side of the pool holding the end of the cord, Phelps tows Mason to the opposite side. Then Phelps lets the boy go, and Mason shoots across the top of the water shrieking and flapping his arms wildly. "The look on his face, it's beyond priceless," says Phelps. He has also taught Mason how to spritz water out of a pylon by releasing it from the bottom of the pool.

"It's very juvenile stuff, obviously," says Mason's mom, Polly, with a laugh, "but he loves it. His relationship with Michael is very important to him. He takes a long time to warm up to people, and many have a hard time relating to him. His speech, his actions, they're very different, and a lot of people don't know how to react. Michael could care less about all that. He has such a young spirit, and there is a goofiness about him that is so attractive to kids."

Mason is a savant who long ago memorized large swaths of The Baseball Encyclopedia, including the statistics of his dad, B.J., a former major league leftfielder. Now he is committing to memory Phelps's myriad records. Inspired by Mason, Phelps has taped public-service announcements for and donated money to the advocacy group Pathfinders for Autism. At the height of the post-Beijing hysteria Phelps cleared his schedule to model clothing at a Pathfinders benefit in Baltimore.

Reaching out seems to come naturally to a swimmer noted for his vast wingspan. In late 2004 Phelps made his only public misstep when he ran a stop sign in Salisbury, Md., and was charged with DUI. (He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.) He confronted the fallout forthrightly, with public apologies and a heartfelt talk at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club about taking responsibility for your actions. Not long after the DUI made news, the first Golden Goggle Awards ceremony was held, and NBC's Ebersol received an award to open the night. He did not have prepared remarks, and when he stepped onstage he locked eyes with Phelps, sitting at a table in the front row. They were only casual acquaintances, yet Ebersol dedicated his speech to the young swimmer. "People were being pretty tough on Michael right then, and I said that the swimming world should be proud of him because of his great character," recalls Ebersol. "Yes, he made a mistake, but he took the heat in the same way he wins big races -- with class, with dignity, without ego."

By the time Ebersol left the dais, Debbie Phelps was crying and Michael, too, was openly emotional.

A couple of weeks later Ebersol and his sons, Charlie and Teddy, were in a private plane that crashed shortly after takeoff in icy conditions. Fourteen-year-old Teddy was killed, along with two crew members. Ebersol broke his back. At Teddy's funeral in Connecticut, Ebersol was startled to see Phelps, who had flown in from Michigan. That was the beginning of a close friendship. "I'm not a crier," says Ebersol, "but every time he won a race in Beijing, I found myself weeping, because when I think of Michael, I think of my son."

The Olympics also had a powerful resonance for the Hansen family, who live in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium and first came in contact with Phelps in the fall of 2002. Stevie Hansen, then seven, was a promising age-group swimmer who was facing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Through Bowman the family asked if Stevie could meet his idol, and the day before the surgery Phelps went to the Hansens' house. He and Stevie shot hoops in the driveway and compared their favorite junk foods. After the operation, while Stevie was recovering in the hospital, Phelps sent balloons and a basket of deliciously unhealthy treats. The next summer Phelps surprised Stevie by showing up at one of his swim meets, and the boy raced across the pool deck to leap into his hero's arms. Phelps later borrowed a suit and swam the anchor leg in a parents-and-coaches relay.

Stevie would occasionally sit on the edge of the Meadowbrook pool watching Phelps practice, and Phelps kept tabs on the boy after he left for Ann Arbor. Stevie continued to swim even as his body was ravaged by more tumors. In April 2007 his health took a dramatic turn for the worse. Phelps rushed back to Maryland but because of a delayed flight didn't arrive at the Hansen home until after midnight. Stevie was so heavily medicated he couldn't be roused, but Phelps stayed for a couple of hours, talking softly to him while the boy slept. "Michael never let go of his hand the whole time," says Stevie's mom, Betsy. "To see this big, strong guy be so tender, it was just incredibly touching." Before he left, Phelps whispered to Stevie that he would win a medal for him in Beijing, and that he would try to make it a gold.

Stevie died a month later. Phelps went to the memorial service and provided a huge bouquet of flowers in purple, Stevie's favorite color.

As the Hansen family gathered in front of the TV for Phelps's first final in Beijing, the 400 individual medley, the promise from a year earlier was on everyone's mind. "That race was so emotional for us," says Betsy of sitting with her husband, Steve, and their 11-year-old daughter, Grace. "Watching Michael swim to the gold, I just cried and cried the whole time. I was so happy for him, but of course it was bittersweet that Stevie wasn't there to help us cheer for him."

Half a world away someone else also thought of Stevie immediately after the 400 IM. "I had promised him I'd win a medal," Phelps says, "and it meant a lot to me to do it for him."

Grace is a swimmer, too, and a good one. During a recent meet she set personal bests in six of her eight events. If Phelps's goal is to inspire the next generation of swimmers, Grace is proof that he's doing a pretty good job of it. "I got into swimming because of Stevie," she says. "Now I'm motivated to be the best I can be because of Michael."

The recent Thanksgiving holiday was the first since 2004 that Phelps got to enjoy with his family, because while in Ann Arbor he was unwilling to interrupt his training to go home. "Last year was the worst," says Hilary. "We called and he had just gotten back from the pool and was eating takeout Chinese all by himself. It broke my heart."

Besides home cooking, Phelps says the best part of returning to Baltimore is having his mom and two older sisters close enough for spontaneous visits. Hilary, who is single, works for an environmental group in Washington; Whitney, who lives with her husband and two children in Rockville, Md., is a recruiter in finance and accounting. The Phelps clan has always been tight-knit and fiercely loyal, but Michael is leaning on them now more than ever, he says, because "they keep things normal."

Since the Olympics his life has been a blur of nonstop business meetings, corporate engagements and media appearances, highlighted by hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live on Sept. 13 and being a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards that same month. Although he is not a natural in front of the camera, Phelps feels he can't say no to too many opportunities. "I do feel an obligation to promote the sport," he says. "It's not even about me. I just think it's cool that a swimmer -- any swimmer -- is hosting SNL."

Though he's used to getting mobbed at swimcentric events such as the Golden Goggles, Phelps has only come to understand the magnitude of his new fame as he has ventured into the wider world over the last few months. "The after-party at the MTV awards was a tent with a thousand people in it," says Phelps's longtime agent, Peter Carlisle. "When Michael walked in, there was this incredible crush. The security people looked a little panicky, and they quickly hustled Michael into the VIP room. There were maybe 100 people in there, and a significant number of them you recognized immediately. Again, same thing -- nonstop autographs and pictures. So the security guys grab Michael again and take him to what I guess was the VVIP area. There's about a dozen people in there, and it's definitely A-list: Paris Hilton, the Jonas brothers, Demi Moore, people like that. When we get in there, it's like, Ah, now we can take a breath. Then the same thing happened again. He's just instantly surrounded, and out come the cameras and pens! Michael just looked at me like, 'Man, can you believe this?' It was pretty surreal."

Phelps remains admirably down to earth, but he is not above occasionally cashing in on his new celebrity. Having burned innumerable hours between training sessions playing online poker, he eagerly accepted an offer from the Maloof brothers, the Las Vegas casino magnates, to host him and two dozen friends for an ultimate guys' weekend shortly after Beijing. Along for the ride was Steve Skeen, a friend since fourth grade who now works in his family's construction business in Baltimore. "The whole VIP treatment, that was something new," says Skeen. Phelps usually brings his trademark intensity to the poker table -- on another visit to Vegas, in October, he finished ninth in a field of 187 contestants -- but accompanied by his entourage he was happy to relax among his admirers, who ranged from cocktail waitresses in Playboy bunny outfits to glistening sunbathers by the pool. "There was definitely more female attention," says Skeen. "Michael is a shy guy in general, but he was having fun with it."

It is a sign of his crossover appeal that Phelps's love life has been chronicled by the mainstream gossip purveyors. In October TMZ.com had a couple of pictures of him squiring a former Miss California USA contestant. Last month PEOPLE (which included him on its recent list of the Sexiest Men Alive) reported that he has been dating a Vegas cocktail waitress, and some racy pictures showing her heavily tattooed torso quickly made the rounds on the Internet. Phelps is embarrassed by this kind of attention, and forcing a laugh at the inevitable follow-up, he says, "I'm single. That's the million-dollar question everyone seems to want answered."

After Phelps won his record eight golds, Carlisle told The Wall Street Journal that the accomplishment would be worth $100 million to Phelps in lifetime endorsements. The deals are already rolling in. In addition to his pre-Olympic contracts with the likes of Speedo, AT&T and Omega, Phelps has signed to endorse Guitar Hero and Subway, among other things.

Phelps is extremely loyal to all of his sponsors, but there's no doubt which endorsement he's most excited about. He recently signed with a French company that will develop a video game starring his likeness. "How cool is that?" Phelps says, sounding like a big kid, which in many ways he still is. "I grew up playing video games, and I can't say I ever thought I'd see one featuring a swimmer." The game is still in the conceptual stage, but, Phelps says, "it's not going to be just boring laps in a pool; there will be a rescue element and some other things people might not expect."

Even as his business portfolio expands, Phelps's only recent splurge has been new rims and a new grill for his 2007 black Range Rover. Bowman bought Phelps's previous Rover at a deep discount, and the coach says, "I had to de-pimp it. I took off the running boards, lightened the tint on the windows and removed that ridiculous sound system. I didn't really need it to listen to NPR."

In the fall of 2007 Phelps spent $1.7 million on a four-story bachelor pad with expansive views of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but he is still getting moved in, to say the least. The walls are bare, though a lot of sports memorabilia -- his and that of other athletes -- is piled up on the floor. He has a mattress but no bed frame, and the rest of the furniture consists basically of a dining table and an old couch. "I would like to trick out the pad," he says in hip-hop inflected patois, "but I haven't been home for more than a few days in a row since the Olympics, so it hasn't happened yet." He has his eye on a five-by-nine-foot flat-screen television that would nearly cover one wall, but his only recent purchases have been junk food in bulk at Costco. (Rice Krispie Treats appear to be a staple of his diet.)

Furnishing the house may pose some challenges, but getting resettled in Baltimore is made easier by a core group of friends that go back to high school and before. By now they're inured to Phelps's success -- after all, the guy threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game when he was 15, after becoming the U.S.'s youngest male Olympian in 68 years. "I was on Facebook the other day," says Erin Lears, a lifelong friend and the daughter of Phelps's former swim teacher, "and the top two fan groups were Barack Obama and Michael Phelps. It's like, Huh?" Having grown up swimming with Phelps and watching him compete, Lears was immunized against the Phelps fever that swept the country during the Olympics. "Honestly, it felt like another swim meet to me," she says. "It was just Michael doing his thing. Yet again."

But blasé intimates aside, it is hard to overstate the civic pride Phelps has brought to Baltimore. In October some 30,000 locals turned out in neighboring Towson for a parade in his honor. A few weeks later Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dressed as Phelps for Halloween. (Lacking the courage to don a Speedo, Flacco went with an Olympic jacket and faux gold medals.) It was three days after the presidential election that the Baltimore Sun broke the news of Phelps's new business relationship with Meadowbrook, bumping an Obama story off page one. "Michael is as big a franchise for us as the Orioles or Ravens," says the Sun's assistant managing editor for sports, Tim Wheatley.

It takes the perspective of another Baltimore sports idol and native son to truly explain the ardor. "We're tickled to death he's come home," says Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame infielder who was born in nearby Havre de Grace, spent 21 seasons with the Orioles and still resides in suburban Baltimore. "Sports has a unique way of branding a city, and Michael has brought that pride. He has become a worldwide symbol of excellence, of achievement, and he's ours. We claim him."

"Baltimore has always had a complex because it's not Washington or New York. It's not even Philadelphia," says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ben Cramer, who cut his teeth as a reporter at the Sun. "The fans are used to getting snubbed -- the Colts left, the Bullets left. A guy like Phelps could have gone Hollywood, but instead he's coming back. People like that. The most important thing to a Baltimore sports fan is fidelity."

"It's a blue-collar, working-class town, so most of the sports heroes are not flashy guys," says Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson, who has set four of his films in his native Baltimore, including the seminal coming-of-age movie Diner. (He also owns a small piece of the Orioles.) "Johnny U, Ripken, Brooks Robinson -- they were dedicated to the craft, not flamboyant. They just got it done. Phelps is that kind of athlete. Forget the medals. What people respect about him is that he just shows up every day and does the work. That's what Baltimore is all about."

Emerging from the water after the photo shoot for this story, at the New York Athletic Club in late November, Phelps said with a smile, "That's the most time I've spent in a pool since Beijing." He meant it, too.

"We were talking before the shoot," said Debbie, "and Michael said, 'I hope they don't make me take my shirt off because I've lost my six-pack. I'm getting fat.' I said, 'Michael, don't talk to me about fat -- you still have no butt!' "

The long sabbatical after the Olympics was designed to allow Phelps to have some fun and build his brand, but he also needed to decompress from the crushing pressure of Beijing. "For six years he had been living with the quest for eight golds," says Bowman. "We're both like ER nurses in that we thrive on the stress, but it wasn't until Beijing was over that I think we both realized what a weight that was. I think we could both finally breathe again."

The plan has always been for Phelps to resume training in January, but, he says, "I'm starting to get a little antsy."

"He's already asked me how long it will take to get back to his top level, which is a good sign," says Bowman. "The formula is that it takes two days in the pool for every day you miss. So we're looking at about six months to get back to where he was."

That schedule would have Phelps peaking for the world championships, July 18 through Aug. 2 in Rome. Actually, most of the pressure to be ready for the worlds is coming from Debbie. "My mom has already told me I have to make the team because she wants to go to Rome," says Phelps, rolling his eyes. "I told her I would just send her there on a vacation, but she was like, 'Watching you swim is always part of my vacation.' So now I have to get back in shape."

Ask him if he's afraid that he's lost his edge, and the usually laconic Phelps sits up straight, looks you in the eye and says with some steel in his voice, "When I have to turn the switch back on, I know I can. All I have to do is put my mind to something and that's it, it's done."

If Phelps's dedication is a given in the long run-up to the 2012 Games, there is still some uncertainty about what events he will swim in London. Just as Tiger Woods has won the Masters with three different golf swings, Phelps feels compelled to tinker just to make sure he remains fully engaged. He and Bowman are in agreement that he will drop one race from his Beijing program -- the 400 IM, even though Phelps set the world record. He will continue swimming the 200 freestyle and will add a new event, the 100 free. In the months to come Phelps and Bowman will decide between the 100 butterfly or 100 back, and the 200 back or 200 IM, and whether to continue with the arduous 200 butterfly. Throw in the three relays, and Phelps should be chasing at least seven more golds in London, although he likes to needle Bowman that he may turn himself into a sprinter so he can add the 50 free, just for the heck of it.

"He can't work any harder," says Bowman. "He can't get much stronger. Maybe he can improve his technique a little, but not much. It's really just change for the sake of change."

Going forward, Bowman says, "I'm totally willing to loosen up. Let's be honest: Michael's place in history is secure. Everything from here on out is just gravy. I'd like for him to enjoy it a little more."

"Yeah, right," says Phelps. "There's absolutely no chance he's going to mellow out. Bob has one speed: Go! I'm the one who knows how to relax, not him."

"Did Michael really say that?" asks Debbie, amused. "Mark my words: All it will take is one so-so meet, and he will be back at it full force. He doesn't know any other way. He never has."

Sometime shortly after New Year's, Phelps will awaken in the wee hours and leave the enveloping warmth of his bed to make the short journey through the freezing city to Meadowbrook, resuming his solitary pursuit of unmatched excellence. "I hate to train alone," he says. "It can be lonely."

But whether or not there is somebody in the lane next to him, Phelps does not swim alone. He is guided by the inspiration of Mason Surhoff and propelled by the memory of Stevie Hansen. Though he can't hear them, the kids at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club cheer him on, and somewhere Dick Ebersol still pulls for him. Phelps's friends and his family and the people of Baltimore are with him, as they always have been.

By championing the cause of water safety Phelps could save many lives, and the trajectory of others will be changed merely by his inspirational example. In 2012, when we are deep into another presidential election and facing challenges that have yet to reveal themselves, Phelps will once again unite a nation. He does not swim alone. He swims for all of us.

Watch SI's underwater cover shoot with Michael Phelps

Where does Phelps stack up against past Sportsman winners?

Gallery:Michael Phelps' Golden Journey in Beijing

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