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