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
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
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.
Once the Golden Goggle ceremonies began, Phelps was seated between his mother,
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
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
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
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
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;
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"It's very juvenile stuff, obviously," says Mason's mom,
Mason is a savant who long ago memorized large swaths of
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,
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 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,
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"Baltimore has always had a complex because it's not Washington or New York. It's not even Philadelphia," says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer
"It's a blue-collar, working-class town, so most of the sports heroes are not flashy guys," says Academy Award-winning director
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
"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
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.