Sportsman of the Year: Michael Phelps (cont.)
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.