THE PARTY of theyear in the swimming world took place not in Beijing's Water Cube in August butin a New York City hotel ballroom the week before Thanksgiving. The occasionwas the Golden Goggle Awards, the Oscars of the amphibious set, and most of the43 members of the U.S. Olympic swim team turned out for the splashy event. Withtheir short skirts, high heels and ripped biceps the women were visions ofpowerful femininity. The dudes wore their tuxedos ironically, with shaggy hairand bow ties askew. Before the awards show began, there was a rip-roaringcocktail hour. The view of midtown Manhattan from the ballroom revealed thegrand old Ziegfeld Theatre, which on this night was hosting a red-carpetpremiere for the latest overwrought Hollywood drama. Despite the constellationof paparazzi flashes the assembled actors couldn't match the star power at theGolden Goggles.
Mingling with acocktail crowd that had paid as much as $1,250 a ticket to attend was DaraTorres, swimming's answer to Diane Lane—a woman who only gets better as shegets older. Aaron Peirsol, in a rakish beard, was projecting the most laid-backCalifornia cool this side of Owen Wilson. Jason Lezak, with his intensity andreceding hairline, called to mind a young Ed Harris. All the assembled teammembers had starring roles of varying magnitude in the blockbuster swimcompetition at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, but as the cocktail hour woreon, the 850 guests began scanning the crowd with increasing anxiety, searchingfor the one swimmer who was noticeably absent. Finally, an escalating buzzturned into a low roar, announcing the belated arrival of Michael Phelps.
Four beefysecurity guards couldn't hold off the crowd that instantly engulfed the23-year-old Phelps. Middle-aged women dripping diamonds elbowed and snarledtheir way through the masses, desperately seeking his autograph. Teenage boystugged 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—anunassuming everyman with whom others feel a strong kinship. Despite thesurrounding bedlam Phelps, in a custom-made Armani tux, seemed to glideeffortlessly through the throng, accommodating as many fans as possible betweenstops to warmly embrace his Olympic teammates.
Phelps remains anordinary kid suddenly leading an extraordinary life, and he works hard tomaintain some balance. His agents always ensure that there is security on handto help him navigate big public appearances, but otherwise Phelps likes totravel unencumbered; that morning he had taken a train up from Baltimore byhimself, only partially disguised by a droopy, Spitzian mustache that he wasoverly proud of (and later would be crestfallen to have to shave off to lookpresentable for the awards show). Phelps sat undisturbed in a commuter car ashe fiddled around on a laptop with a Wi-Fi card, and upon arriving in New Yorkhe made his way through Penn Station and flagged down a yellow cab on thestreet without a single autograph request, a 21st-century Mr. Smith arriving inhis Washington, with iPod. "You can't stop living your life," hesays.
December 8, 2008
Once the GoldenGoggle ceremonies began, Phelps was seated between his mother, Debbie, and hisolder sister Hilary, who in the Beijing drama were supporting actresses,watched voyeuristically by TV cameras as they lived and died in the stands withevery race. The Goggles began with a rousing Olympic highlights package shownon huge screens at the front of the ballroom. "To this day I'm not sure themagnitude of what happened over there has hit me," says Phelps, and herewas another chance to relive it. As the unforgettable images from Beijingplayed out, Debbie rubbed her son's back softly, and she and Hilary and Michaeloccasionally exchanged long, meaningful glances. By the time the video wasover, enough emotion had been summoned that all three Phelpses were blinkingback tears.
To the surpriseof no one, Phelps collected much of the hardware, accepting the awards for MaleAthlete of the Year, Male Performance of the Year and Relay of the Year withheartfelt speeches in which he thanked his family, coach Bob Bowman and histeammates, and expressed how proud he was to wear the Stars and Stripes. Butasked later to pick out the highlight of the evening, Phelps didn't hesitate:"Having a relatively peaceful dinner with my mom and sister. That neverhappens anymore."
No sooner had theawards program ended than a mob of Sharpie- and camera-phone-wielding guestsencircled Phelps, knowing this was their last chance to take home a piece ofhim. When a chair was knocked over in the crush, the hired muscle grabbedPhelps and hustled him out of the building. He didn't even have time to say aproper goodbye to his mom, who looked around the ballroom and wondered aloud,"What just happened here?"
WHAT HAPPENED isthat for eight days in August, Debbie Phelps's son turned the Beijing Olympicsinto a serialized thriller with nightly installments that played out in primetime. Eight gold medals and seven world records would have been more thanenough to secure his stardom, but Phelps's performance was made all the moreunforgettable by two images for the ages: his primal scream punctuating animprobable U.S. comeback in the 4√ó100-meter freestyle relay on the second nightof coverage, and the heart-stopping, fingertip-bending photo finish in the 100butterfly for his penultimate gold. In the midst of a contentious presidentialelection and the first signs of a faltering economy, Phelps brought Americanstogether by the tens of millions, the TV serving as a portal to a faraway landand the outer limits of athletic achievement.
As a spectatorsport swimming has always resided in the margins, and even during the Olympicsit is often overshadowed by gymnastics and track. But in China, Phelps turnedhis every race into can't-miss television. "The Beijing Olympics was themost watched event in American history," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBCSports, 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. Whathe accomplished transcended sport and became a cultural phenomenon."
With the finalsof Phelps's races broadcast live between 10 and 11:30 p.m. Eastern time,"swim hangover" became an acceptable excuse for showing up late forwork. And Phelps dominated the daylight hours as well. In office cubicles anddorm rooms and Wi-Fi'd coffee shops tech-savvy sports fans monitored Phelps'searly-morning heat results and downloaded his races. During the Gamesnbcolympics.com logged 1.3 billion page views and 75 million viewings of videoclips; among the 10,000 Olympic competitors, Phelps accounted for 20% of allathlete-specific traffic.
Phelpsmania wasfelt most acutely in the hometown that gave rise to a provincial nickname—theBaltimore Bullet—that he has since outgrown. Baltimore had the highest Olympictelevision ratings of any market in the country on the night of his firstfinal, and when Phelps swam for his record eighth gold the city's NBC affiliatedrew a 59 share. (Three out of every five televisions in the metropolitan areawere 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 beforePhelps's final race of the Games, the club invited fans to stick around M&TBank Stadium to watch their hero on the JumboTron. Thousands did, and even thebaddest man in Baltimore got caught up in the spectacle. "I could feel itin 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 anelectric moment."
Merely watchinghim wasn't enough for those Baltimore fans who needed something tangible tobring them closer to the story. One supplicant showed up at the MeadowbrookAquatic Center, where Phelps competed growing up, and asked to dip a vial inthe pool, to take home a few ounces of this holy water. Those seekingsustenance flocked to Phelps's favorite greasy spoon, Pete's Grille, where histraditional pretraining breakfast was offered during the Olympics as a $19.95special: a three-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast withpowdered sugar, three chocolate-chip pancakes and three fried-egg sandwicheswith cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions and mayo. "Usually it was agroup of people who'd order it," says Dave Stahl, the owner of Pete'sGrille. "The one guy who tried it by himself complained of pretty seriousstomach pain."
Phelps's calorieintake may seem superhuman, and his 6'4", 185-pound body may recall Greekstatuary, but fans are also drawn to him by a goofy grin and oversized earsthat led to his being called Spock on the school bus. (He was also teased abouta slight lisp he still has and is self-conscious about.) Being a prodigy in thepool since an early age did not translate into a carefree life. Diagnosed withattention deficit hyperactivity disorder in sixth grade, Phelps feltembarrassed to have to slink to the nurse's office each day to take hisRitalin. (He weaned himself off the drug, with his doctor's blessing, after ayear.) 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 MichaelPhelps turns out to be imperfect is what made it so easy to think of him as oneof us, only with a better dolphin kick. Says Debbie, "Michael was invitedinto people's homes night after night—into their living rooms, to the dinnertable with them, into their bedrooms. They lived with him and his quest, and itbecame a very personal relationship."
The Americanpublic became so smitten with Phelps that NBC announced it will offer thefirst-ever live coverage of swimming's world championships next summer and alsowill broadcast the U.S. nationals in '09, '10 and '11. "When Michael was15, he told me he wanted to change the sport of swimming," says Cathy LearsBennett, the instructor for Meadowbrook's swim school who taught aseven-year-old Phelps to swim. "It was like, Yeah, right, who told you tosay that, kid? But he's always had a vision that swimming could becomeimportant to American fans."
It is forelevating his sport—and all of us out of our seats—with a beguiling grace andhumility 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 2012London Olympics beckon, but going forward Phelps's legacy will no longer bemeasured in medals.
IT IS 8 A.M. on aSunday in north Baltimore, and the deserted streets are buffeted by a bitterNovember wind. All the kids are inside; no doubt some are still snoozing andothers are watching cartoons or playing video games, but in the steamy indoorpool at Meadowbrook six dozen diehards, ages 11 to 19, in LONDON 2012 caps arestreaking back and forth, a riot of churning arms and legs creating a cacophonyof shouting and splashing. Prowling the pool deck is Bob Bowman, gulping coffeeand seemingly monitoring every swimmer at once. To the untrained eye all of thekids look pretty much the same as they turn their laps, but Bowman says, "Ican show you which ones are the five-star talents, the four-star, theno-star...."
He stops to barkat some boys roughhousing on the edge of the pool. After they settle down,Bowman says, "Ten years ago that would have been Michael."
"Pushing kidsinto the pool? That's nothing," says Phelps. "I got busted for muchworse than that."
It was atMeadowbrook in 1996 that Phelps, an unbridled 11-year-old, met his match inBowman, a onetime college swimmer who was channeling his considerable passioninto coaching the competitive team that trained there, the North BaltimoreAquatic Club. Though no one in the Phelps camp likes to use the term, Bowmanbecame a father figure to young Michael, and the importance of thatrelationship helps explain Phelps's strong feelings for Meadowbrook. "Therewere a lot of friends and some very good role models for him here," saysLears Bennett, who began teaching at Meadowbrook in '64, when she was 13, andremains the director of its learn-to-swim program. "It was a safe place forhim. There was a comfort, a familiarity. He felt good about himselfhere."
The Bowman-Phelpsbond long ago transcended a teacher-student relationship. At the GoldenGoggles, as he was accepting his third straight Coach of the Year award, Bowmantried to put into words his feelings for Phelps. When he choked up, he merelypatted his heart and it was all he could do to say four words: "Michael, Ilove you."
Since theOlympics their relationship has taken on another dimension, as they are theonly partners in Aquatic Ventures, LLC, which last month took a controllinginterest in Meadowbrook and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. When Bowman leftMeadowbrook after the 2004 Athens Olympics to become men's coach at theUniversity of Michigan, Phelps (who had won the first six of his Olympic-record14 career golds at those Games) followed him, and Ann Arbor remained theirtraining base through Beijing. Afterward, Phelps felt the pull of home, andBowman followed him back to Baltimore. Meadowbrook is where Bowman will trainPhelps for the 2012 Olympics, and they have grand plans for a 78-year-oldfacility that has a lot of character (a polite way of putting it). "We wantto turn it into one of the best places to train in the country," saysPhelps. "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 ourpersonalities."
There is plentyof aesthetic work to be done, but even with a 50-meter outdoor pool that isopen from Memorial Day through September, Meadowbrook can't accommodate manynew swimmers; there are already 1,000 year-round family memberships and another500 or so in the summer. When Phelps resumes serious training next month, hewill sometimes find himself in a lane next to kids in swim diapers or seniorstrying to loosen up arthritic joints. Locally, there has been a lot ofspeculation about the possibility of Aquatic Ventures' buying a boarded-up icerink that abuts the property; knock down the rink and the land would offerMeadowbrook enough space to add a couple of new pools. All Phelps will say isthat "there are a million ideas right now, and it is going to take a littletime to sort everything out."
But turningMeadowbrook into a destination for elite swimmers is only part of Phelps'svision. Increasing participation rates among kids around the country andexpanding their access to the water is one of the primary goals of the nascentMichael Phelps Foundation, the seed money for which came from Phelps's donatingthe $1 million bonus Speedo gave him for winning his record eight golds. At theGolden Goggles the host USA Swimming Foundation played a video that citeddrowning as the second-leading cause of accidental death among five- to14-year-olds in the U.S. Listening intently, Phelps responded with a fewviolent shakes of his head that could have been roughly translated as, Not onmy watch. "Hearing that, it's shocking," he says. "It needs tochange. The reason I started swimming was water safety, pure and simple. I havea passion for keeping kids safe. My mission is to teach as many as I can toswim. It's not about chasing medals—you never know when you're going to be putin a situation that's life or death."
Phelps has longgravitated toward children. Going back to his early high school years he was aregular celebrity guest at the Boys and Girls Club in Aberdeen, Md."Children know if you're not being real with them, and they respond toMichael 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 honorhim, and he seemed so happy after all the cameras and all the adults leftbecause he got to go into the gym with the kids and play basketball, Foosballand all sorts of games for what seemed like hours."
Perhaps becausehe was regularly hazed by the older swimmers he competed against—duringpractice a couple of the bigger boys would toss him from lane to lane like abeach ball—Phelps has a knack for befriending those who might benefit from alittle extra attention. He has long been close to Mason Surhoff, 16, who isautistic and who trains at Meadowbrook to swim the 50 and 100 freestyle and 50back in the Special Olympics. Phelps invented a game in which Mason wears aVelcro belt that attaches to a rubber resistance cord. While a brawny adultstands on one side of the pool holding the end of the cord, Phelps tows Masonto the opposite side. Then Phelps lets the boy go, and Mason shoots across thetop of the water shrieking and flapping his arms wildly. "The look on hisface, it's beyond priceless," says Phelps. He has also taught Mason how tospritz water out of a pylon by releasing it from the bottom of the pool.
"It's veryjuvenile stuff, obviously," says Mason's mom, Polly, with a laugh, "buthe loves it. His relationship with Michael is very important to him. He takes along time to warm up to people, and many have a hard time relating to him. Hisspeech, his actions, they're very different, and a lot of people don't know howto 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 savantwho long ago memorized large swaths of The Baseball Encyclopedia, including thestatistics of his dad, B.J., a former major league leftfielder. Now he iscommitting to memory Phelps's myriad records. Inspired by Mason, Phelps hastaped public-service announcements for and donated money to the advocacy groupPathfinders for Autism. At the height of the post-Beijing hysteria Phelpscleared his schedule to model clothing at a Pathfinders benefit inBaltimore.
REACHING OUTseems to come naturally to a swimmer noted for his vast wingspan. In late 2004Phelps 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 aheartfelt talk at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club about taking responsibilityfor your actions. Not long after the DUI made news, the first Golden GoggleAwards ceremony was held, and NBC's Ebersol received an award to open thenight. He did not have prepared remarks, and when he stepped onstage he lockedeyes with Phelps, sitting at a table in the front row. They were only casualacquaintances, yet Ebersol dedicated his speech to the young swimmer."People were being pretty tough on Michael right then, and I said that theswimming 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 sameway he wins big races—with class, with dignity, without ego."
By the timeEbersol left the dais, Debbie Phelps was crying and Michael, too, was openlyemotional.
A couple of weekslater Ebersol and his sons, Charlie and Teddy, were in a private plane thatcrashed shortly after takeoff in icy conditions. Fourteen-year-old Teddy waskilled, along with two crew members. Ebersol broke his back. At Teddy's funeralin Connecticut, Ebersol was startled to see Phelps, who had flown in fromMichigan. That was the beginning of a close friendship. "I'm not acrier," says Ebersol, "but every time he won a race in Beijing, I foundmyself weeping, because when I think of Michael, I think of my son."
The Olympics alsohad a powerful resonance for the Hansen family, who live in the Baltimoresuburb 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 facingsurgery to remove a brain tumor. Through Bowman the family asked if Steviecould 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 favoritejunk foods. After the operation, while Stevie was recovering in the hospital,Phelps sent balloons and a basket of deliciously unhealthy treats. The nextsummer Phelps surprised Stevie by showing up at one of his swim meets, and theboy raced across the pool deck to leap into his hero's arms. Phelps laterborrowed a suit and swam the anchor leg in a parents-and-coaches relay.
Stevie wouldoccasionally 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 continuedto swim even as his body was ravaged by more tumors. In April 2007 his healthtook a dramatic turn for the worse. Phelps rushed back to Maryland but becauseof 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 acouple of hours, talking softly to him while the boy slept. "Michael neverlet go of his hand the whole time," says Stevie's mom, Betsy. "To seethis big, strong guy be so tender, it was just incredibly touching." Beforehe left, Phelps whispered to Stevie that he would win a medal for him inBeijing, and that he would try to make it a gold.
Stevie died amonth later. Phelps went to the memorial service and provided a huge bouquet offlowers in purple, Stevie's favorite color.
As the Hansenfamily gathered in front of the TV for Phelps's first final in Beijing, the 400individual medley, the promise from a year earlier was on everyone's mind."That race was so emotional for us," says Betsy of sitting with herhusband, Steve, and their 11-year-old daughter, Grace. "Watching Michaelswim to the gold, I just cried and cried the whole time. I was so happy forhim, but of course it was bittersweet that Stevie wasn't there to help us cheerfor him."
Half a world awaysomeone else also thought of Stevie immediately after the 400 IM. "I hadpromised him I'd win a medal," Phelps says, "and it meant a lot to meto do it for him."
Grace is aswimmer, too, and a good one. During a recent meet she set personal bests insix of her eight events. If Phelps's goal is to inspire the next generation ofswimmers, Grace is proof that he's doing a pretty good job of it. "I gotinto swimming because of Stevie," she says. "Now I'm motivated to bethe best I can be because of Michael."
THE RECENTThanksgiving holiday was the first since 2004 that Phelps got to enjoy with hisfamily, because while in Ann Arbor he was unwilling to interrupt his trainingto go home. "Last year was the worst," says Hilary. "We called andhe had just gotten back from the pool and was eating takeout Chinese all byhimself. It broke my heart."
Besides homecooking, Phelps says the best part of returning to Baltimore is having his momand two older sisters close enough for spontaneous visits. Hilary, who issingle, works for an environmental group in Washington; Whitney, who lives withher husband and two children in Rockville, Md., is a recruiter in finance andaccounting. The Phelps clan has always been tight-knit and fiercely loyal, butMichael is leaning on them now more than ever, he says, because "they keepthings normal."
Since theOlympics his life has been a blur of nonstop business meetings, corporateengagements and media appearances, highlighted by hosting the season premiereof Saturday Night Live on Sept. 13 and being a presenter at the MTV Video MusicAwards 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 anobligation to promote the sport," he says. "It's not even about me. Ijust think it's cool that a swimmer—any swimmer—is hosting SNL."
Though he's usedto getting mobbed at swimcentric events such as the Golden Goggles, Phelps hasonly come to understand the magnitude of his new fame as he has ventured intothe wider world over the last few months. "The after-party at the MTVawards was a tent with a thousand people in it," says Phelps's longtimeagent, Peter Carlisle. "When Michael walked in, there was this incrediblecrush. The security people looked a little panicky, and they quickly hustledMichael into the VIP room. There were maybe 100 people in there, and asignificant number of them you recognized immediately. Again, samething—nonstop autographs and pictures. So the security guys grab Michael againand take him to what I guess was the VVIP area. There's about a dozen people inthere, and it's definitely A-list: Paris Hilton, the Jonas brothers, DemiMoore, people like that. When we get in there, it's like, Ah, now we can take abreath. Then the same thing happened again. He's just instantly surrounded, andout come the cameras and pens! Michael just looked at me like, 'Man, can youbelieve this?' It was pretty surreal."
Phelps remainsadmirably down to earth, but he is not above occasionally cashing in on his newcelebrity. Having burned innumerable hours between training sessions playingonline poker, he eagerly accepted an offer from the Maloof brothers, the LasVegas 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 friendsince fourth grade who now works in his family's construction business inBaltimore. "The whole VIP treatment, that was something new," saysSkeen. Phelps usually brings his trademark intensity to the poker table—onanother visit to Vegas, in October, he finished ninth in a field of 187contestants—but accompanied by his entourage he was happy to relax among hisadmirers, who ranged from cocktail waitresses in Playboy bunny outfits toglistening sunbathers by the pool. "There was definitely more femaleattention," says Skeen. "Michael is a shy guy in general, but he washaving fun with it."
It is a sign ofhis crossover appeal that Phelps's love life has been chronicled by themainstream gossip purveyors. In October TMZ.com had a couple of pictures of himsquiring a former Miss California USA contestant. Last month People (whichincluded him on its recent list of the Sexiest Men Alive) reported that he hasbeen dating a Vegas cocktail waitress, and some racy pictures showing herheavily tattooed torso quickly made the rounds on the Internet. Phelps isembarrassed by this kind of attention, and forcing a laugh at the inevitablefollow-up, he says, "I'm single. That's the million-dollar questioneveryone seems to want answered."
AFTER PHELPS wonhis record eight golds, Carlisle told The Wall Street Journal that theaccomplishment would be worth $100 million to Phelps in lifetime endorsements.The deals are already rolling in. In addition to his pre-Olympic contracts withAT&T, Hilton, Kellogg's and Omega, Phelps has signed to endorse Disney,Guitar Hero, Hewlett-Packard and Subway among others.
Phelps isextremely loyal to all of his sponsors, but there's no doubt which endorsementhe's most excited about. He recently signed with an Italian company that willdevelop a video game starring his likeness. "How cool is that?" Phelpssays, sounding like a big kid, which in many ways he still is. "I grew upplaying video games, and I can't say I ever thought I'd see one featuring aswimmer." 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 rescueelement and some other things people might not expect."
Even as hisbusiness portfolio expands, Phelps's only recent splurge has been new rims anda new grill for his 2007 black Range Rover. Bowman bought Phelps's previousRover at a deep discount, and the coach says, "I had to de-pimp it. I tookoff the running boards, lightened the tint on the windows and removed thatridiculous sound system. I didn't really need it to listen to NPR."
In the fall of2007 Phelps spent $1.7 million on a four-story bachelor pad with expansiveviews of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but he is still getting moved in, to say theleast. The walls are bare, though a lot of sports memorabilia—his and that ofother 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 oldcouch. "I would like to trick out the pad," he says in hip-hopinflected patois, "but I haven't been home for more than a few days in arow since the Olympics, so it hasn't happened yet." He has his eye on afive-by-nine-foot flat-screen television that would nearly cover one wall, buthis only recent purchases have been junk food in bulk at Costco. (Rice KrispieTreats appear to be a staple of his diet.)
Furnishing thehouse may pose some challenges, but getting resettled in Baltimore is madeeasier by a core group of friends that go back to high school and before. Bynow they're inured to Phelps's success—after all, the guy threw the ceremonialfirst pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game when he was 15, after becoming theU.S.'s youngest male Olympian in 68 years. "I was on Facebook the otherday," says Erin Lears, a lifelong friend and the daughter of Phelps'sformer swim teacher, "and the top two fan groups were Barack Obama andMichael Phelps. It's like, Huh?" Having grown up swimming with Phelps andwatching him compete, Lears was immunized against the Phelps fever that sweptthe country during the Olympics. "Honestly, it felt like another swim meetto me," she says. "It was just Michael doing his thing. Yetagain."
But blaséintimates aside, it is hard to overstate the civic pride Phelps has brought toBaltimore. In October some 30,000 locals turned out in neighboring Towson for aparade in his honor. A few weeks later Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dressed asPhelps for Halloween. (Lacking the courage to don a Speedo, Flacco went with anOlympic jacket and faux gold medals.) It was three days after the presidentialelection that the Baltimore Sun broke the news of Phelps's new businessrelationship with Meadowbrook, bumping an Obama story off page one."Michael is as big a franchise for us as the Orioles or Ravens," saysthe Sun's assistant managing editor for sports, Tim Wheatley.
It takes theperspective of another Baltimore sports idol and native son to truly explainthe ardor. "We're tickled to death he's come home," says Cal RipkenJr., the Hall of Fame infielder who was born in nearby Havre de Grace, spent 21seasons with the Orioles and still resides in suburban Baltimore. "Sportshas a unique way of branding a city, and Michael has brought that pride. He hasbecome a worldwide symbol of excellence, of achievement, and he's ours. Weclaim him."
"Baltimorehas always had a complex because it's not Washington or New York. It's not evenPhiladelphia," says Pulitzer Prize--winning writer Richard Ben Cramer, whocut his teeth as a reporter at the Sun. "The fans are used to gettingsnubbed—the Colts left, the Bullets left. A guy like Phelps could have goneHollywood, but instead he's coming back. People like that. The most importantthing to a Baltimore sports fan is fidelity."
"It's ablue-collar, working-class town, so most of the sports heroes are not flashyguys," says Academy Award--winning director Barry Levinson, who has setfour of his films in his native Baltimore, including the seminal coming-of-agemovie Diner. (He also owns a small piece of the Orioles.) "Johnny U,Ripken, Brooks Robinson—they were dedicated to the craft, not flamboyant. Theyjust got it done. Phelps is that kind of athlete. Forget the medals. Whatpeople respect about him is that he just shows up every day and does the work.That's what Baltimore is all about."
EMERGING FROM thewater after the photo shoot for this story, at the New York Athletic Club inlate November, Phelps said with a smile, "That's the most time I've spentin a pool since Beijing." He meant it, too.
"We weretalking before the shoot," said Debbie, "and Michael said, 'I hope theydon't make me take my shirt off because I've lost my six-pack. I'm gettingfat.' I said, 'Michael, don't talk to me about fat—you still have nobutt!'"
The longsabbatical after the Olympics was designed to allow Phelps to have some fun andbuild his brand, but he also needed to decompress from the crushing pressure ofBeijing. "For six years he had been living with the quest for eightgolds," says Bowman. "We're both like ER nurses in that we thrive onthe stress, but it wasn't until Beijing was over that I think we both realizedwhat a weight that was. I think we could both finally breathe again."
The plan hasalways been for Phelps to resume training in January, but, he says, "I'mstarting to get a little antsy."
"He's alreadyasked me how long it will take to get back to his top level, which is a goodsign," says Bowman. "The formula is that it takes two days in the poolfor every day you miss. So we're looking at about six months to get back towhere he was."
That schedulewould have Phelps peaking for the world championships, July 18 through Aug. 2in Rome. Actually, most of the pressure to be ready for the worlds is comingfrom Debbie. "My mom has already told me I have to make the team becauseshe wants to go to Rome," says Phelps, rolling his eyes. "I told her Iwould just send her there on a vacation, but she was like, 'Watching you swimis always part of my vacation.' So now I have to get back in shape."
Ask him if he'safraid that he's lost his edge, and the usually laconic Phelps sits upstraight, looks you in the eye and says with some steel in his voice, "WhenI have to turn the switch back on, I know I can. All I have to do is put mymind to something and that's it, it's done."
If Phelps'sdedication is a given in the long run-up to the 2012 Games, there is still someuncertainty about what events he will swim in London. Just as Tiger Woods haswon the Masters with three different golf swings, Phelps feels compelled totinker just to make sure he remains fully engaged. He and Bowman are inagreement that he will drop one race from his Beijing program—the 400 IM, eventhough Phelps set the world record. He will continue swimming the 200 freestyleand will add a new event, the 100 free. In the months to come Phelps and Bowmanwill 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 threerelays, 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 sohe can add the 50 free, just for the heck of it.
"He can'twork any harder," says Bowman. "He can't get much stronger. Maybe hecan improve his technique a little, but not much. It's really just change forthe sake of change."
Going forward,Bowman says, "I'm totally willing to loosen up. Let's be honest: Michael'splace in history is secure. Everything from here on out is just gravy. I'd likefor him to enjoy it a little more."
"Yeah,right," says Phelps. "There's absolutely no chance he's going to mellowout. Bob has one speed: Go! I'm the one who knows how to relax, nothim."
"Did Michaelreally say that?" asks Debbie, amused. "Mark my words: All it will takeis one so-so meet, and he will be back at it full force. He doesn't know anyother way. He never has."
SOMETIME SHORTLYafter New Year's, Phelps will awaken in the wee hours and leave the envelopingwarmth of his bed to make the short journey through the freezing city toMeadowbrook, resuming his solitary pursuit of unmatched excellence. "I hateto train alone," he says. "It can be lonely."
But whether ornot there is somebody in the lane next to him, Phelps does not swim alone. Heis guided by the inspiration of Mason Surhoff and propelled by the memory ofStevie Hansen. Though he can't hear them, the kids at the Aberdeen Boys andGirls 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, asthey always have been.
By championingthe cause of water safety Phelps could save many lives, and the trajectory ofothers will be changed merely by his inspirational example. In 2012, when weare deep into another presidential election and facing challenges that have yetto reveal themselves, Phelps will once again unite a nation. He does not swimalone. He swims for all of us.
With the finals broadcast live between 10 and 11:30p.m. Eastern time, "SWIM HANGOVER" became an acceptable excuse forshowing up late for work.
"Watching Michael swim to the gold, I just CRIEDAND CRIED," says Betsy Hansen. "I was so happy for him, but it wasbittersweet that Stevie wasn't there to cheer for him."
"I do feel an obligation to promote thesport," says Phelps. "IT'S NOT EVEN ABOUT ME. I just think it's coolthat a swimmer—any swimmer—is hosting SNL."
"When I have to turn the switch back on, I KNOW ICAN," Phelps says of competing again. "All I have to do is put my mindto something. It's done."
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