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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.
IT IS 8 A.M. on a Sunday in north Baltimore, and the deserted streets are buffeted by a bitter November wind. All the kids are inside; no doubt some are still snoozing and others are watching cartoons or playing video games, but in the steamy indoor pool at Meadowbrook six dozen diehards, ages 11 to 19, in LONDON 2012 caps are streaking back and forth, a riot of churning arms and legs creating a cacophony of shouting and splashing. Prowling the pool deck is Bob Bowman, gulping coffee and seemingly monitoring every swimmer at once. To the untrained eye all of the kids look pretty much the same as they turn their laps, but Bowman says, "I can show you which ones are the five-star talents, the four-star, the no-star...."
He stops to bark at some boys roughhousing on the edge of the pool. After they settle down, Bowman says, "Ten years ago that would have been Michael."
"Pushing kids into the pool? That's nothing," says Phelps. "I got busted for much worse than that."
It was at Meadowbrook in 1996 that Phelps, an unbridled 11-year-old, met his match in Bowman, a onetime college swimmer who was channeling his considerable passion into coaching the competitive team that trained there, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Though no one in the Phelps camp likes to use the term, Bowman became a father figure to young Michael, and the importance of that relationship helps explain Phelps's strong feelings for Meadowbrook. "There were a lot of friends and some very good role models for him here," says Lears Bennett, who began teaching at Meadowbrook in '64, when she was 13, and remains the director of its learn-to-swim program. "It was a safe place for him. There was a comfort, a familiarity. He felt good about himself here."