In the second week of June, a high school swimming pool in suburban Colorado Springs has been transformed into a soundstage as Michael Phelps films a commercial for AT&T Wireless during a break from 17 days of intense altitude swimming at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. One day training and the next day on television. Such is life on the cusp of Olympic history. In gathering darkness the 18-year-old orders a double cheeseburger from a catering truck outside the pool and then punches up an NBA playoff score on his BlackBerry. "Pistons by one, second quarter, yeah!" he says. His brown, tousled hair bounces as he walks, and his baggy shorts hang below his knees.
The BlackBerry, a new acquisition, is one of the gadgets that drive him almost as much as swimming fast. "I just got an iPod," he says enthusiastically. "I put 850 songs on it, and it's sooo much better than carrying around a bunch of CDs." Asked whether his songs were downloaded legally or illegally, Phelps says, "I'll keep eating now," and stuffs half a burger into his mouth.
He likes to call himself a normal teenager. And he is—except for the millions of dollars in endorsement contracts, the shiny Cadillac Escalade, the starring role in NBC Olympic ads and the once-in-a-generation athletic talent. If all goes perfectly for Phelps in Athens, he will win eight gold medals, breaking swimmer Mark Spitz's Olympic record of seven and tying the alltime medal record for one Games held by Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin. If Phelps has an off meet, he is still almost certain to take home more medals than any of the Games' 10,000 other competitors.
The sport has rarely seen an athlete so gifted. Phelps, who's 6'5" with a pterodactyl's wingspan of 76½ inches, is blessed with almost unprecedented versatility—he is exceptional at butterfly, backstroke, freestyle and individual medley, composed of those three plus the breaststroke—and has an instinctive grasp of the medium in which he competes. "He just feels the water," says training partner and former Auburn All-America Kevin Clements. "He knows exactly where to put his hand so that it doesn't make any bubbles. Every stroke is perfect."
Even fellow world-record holders marvel at him. Says Olympic favorite Aaron Peirsol, the only person ever to have swum the 200-meter backstroke faster than Phelps, "He has a gift, man. A physical and mental gift. To be able to do all those different strokes, obviously his brain functions differently from most people's."
As Phelps stands on the doorstep of Olympic history, he has already become part competitor and part commodity. If he wins as many as seven golds, swimwear manufacturer Speedo will pay him a $1 million bonus, a pledge that was included in the six-year contract Phelps signed and made public last November. The bonus has become the cornerstone of an aggressive campaign conceived by Phelps's agent, Peter Carlisle, in concert with Carlisle's business partners, to ensure the swimmer's fame and marketability even before he steps onto the pool deck in Athens. "It's unfortunate that in American sports you are measured by your performance not just on the field or in the pool but also at the bank," says Stu Isaac, senior vice president of team sales and marketing for Speedo. "But there's no doubt that the bonus and the publicity behind it have been critical to bringing Michael to public attention."
The Games will not decide whether Phelps is wealthy or poor. His sponsor deals (Argent Mortgage, Visa and PowerBar, in addition to Speedo and AT&T Wireless) guarantee him an annual income comfortably into seven figures through 2009. (Speedo first signed him in 2001, when he was 16; he became the company's youngest-ever male endorser.) The Olympics will decide, however, whether Phelps becomes more than just an outstanding swimmer with a sharp agent. They will test whether he can transcend his sport and become one of the Olympics' alltime greats.
They will also measure his ability to take the biggest athletic spectacle on earth and carry it on his broad shoulders. The drug scandal that has engulfed track and field has thrust swimming to the forefront of the Games. "The BALCO case has been awful for track, because companies won't touch that sport right now," says Evan Morgenstein, agent for more than two dozen world-class swimmers, "but it's been a windfall for swimming."
NBC began promoting Phelps months ago, putting his dripping face on the screen during the Kentucky Derby and golf's U.S. Open. "Let's face it," says Spitz, no stranger to the vagaries of Olympic fame. "Michael is NBC's meal ticket."
Phelps first opened eyes by making the 2000 Olympic team just 10 weeks after his 15th birthday and by breaking the 200-meter butterfly record seven months later to become the youngest male world-record holder in history. He soon became the first swimmer to win U.S. titles in backstroke, butterfly, freestyle and both individual medleys. But what lifted him into truly rarefied air was his performance at last summer's world championships in Barcelona, where he set five world records and won six medals, four of them gold.