Last month Michael Phelps drove his Cadillac Escalade past a cinema multiplex in his native Baltimore and was astounded by the mid-afternoon line stretching around two street corners. "What's playing here?" he said. "It doesn't even get this crowded at night." Phelps was heading to an autograph session at a nearby AT&T store, and only when he saw the words MARRY ME, MICHAEL on the back of a teenage girl's T-shirt did he realize that the line was for him.
As the planned one-hour session dragged into its third hour, Phelps excused himself and headed along Interstate 695 to another engagement. From the sunroof of a car to his right emerged two girls screaming his name and waving Wheaties boxes bearing his picture. Fighting his laughter, Phelps sped up so that the other car's driver (who appeared to be the girls' mother) could pass the boxes out the window to a passenger in Phelps's SUV and eventually to him. Phelps signed three boxes, passed them back and then pointed ahead to remind the other driver that she was in a moving vehicle.
Phelps, 19, has been living in the fast lane since he won eight Olympic medals in Athens this summer. Two days after the Games concluded, he and Olympic teammates Lenny Krayzelburg and Ian Crocker began a Disney-sponsored 15-city tour called Swim with the Stars. Each stop included video highlights, stroke demonstrations, a Q-and-A session, a race among the three swimmers and a relay in which the Olympians each anchored a kids' team. Phelps and the others helped design the events, from the swim drills to the choice of background music to the length of the program and even the way organizers sold merchandise.
Though Peter Carlisle, manager for the three Olympians, won't give specifics about the tour's finances, he says that each swimmer "made more money in a month than most swimmers do in a year," and that a significant portion of that came from sponsors rather than ticket sales. "We didn't want the ticket cost to be a barrier to people," Carlisle says. Tickets began at $25, and those purchasing $100 VIP seats were guaranteed access to an autograph session.
After each event Phelps would wend his way through screaming teens to the tour bus with help from his bodyguard, Ricky Frazier, a former New York City cop who once fought Roy Jones Jr. for the light heavyweight title. The bus, which slept 12 and used to belong to magician David Copperfield, was often dotted with girls' phone numbers taped to the outside of the door. "It was like being with Elvis," says Krayzelburg, "except Michael was more approachable."
The response to Phelps was strongest in his hometown of Towson, Md., where the city organized a parade called the Phelpstival. A street was named in his honor and Baltimore's Democratic mayor, Martin O'Malley, and the state's Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., made a rare joint appearance to welcome him home.
Phelps appeared on Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly and The Tonight Show. On Sept. 16 he broke off the tour for a day and flew to Michigan, where he took part in the opening ceremonies of the Ryder Cup and met Donald Trump, who told Phelps to call the next time he's in New York City.
Perhaps the hours on the bus finally took their toll last Friday, when, three days after the end of his tour, a weary Phelps pulled out of the World Short Course Swimming Championships in Indianapolis because of a strained muscle in his back. He competed in just one event, winning the 200-meter freestyle on Thursday before heading back to Baltimore for tests.
With an eye on his future, Phelps, who plans to compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been accepted to Michigan, where his mentor, Bob Bowman, took over as coach Sept. 1. But Phelps will not attend classes there for at least another semester. "Swimming has a window after the Olympics to take advantage of its popularity," Phelps says. For Elvis, the window is still wide open.