By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 18 -- Michael Phelps folded his weary limbs into a chair in a room by himself Monday afternoon, just more than 24 hours after his life, with one final gold medal, changed forever. His work in the Olympic pool was over. But his job is no longer just to swim. It is to promote his sport and himself, not necessarily in that order, so there is a week ahead that includes trips to Michigan and then London and finally back to Baltimore, home.
"I'm just going to live my life the same way I always have," he told a visitor, exhaustion across his face, his flip-flops kicked to the floor. "That's the only way I know how to do it."
Yet that might be his most ambitious pursuit yet. The first day after Phelps cemented his legend by winning his record eighth gold medal of these Games consisted of a move from the Athletes' Village to a Beijing hotel, some down time with his family and a few friends from back home, a "big, fat cheeseburger," a phone conversation with President Bush and then the first of several media events, an hours-long appearance for Visa at the palace of the grandson of a Chinese emperor. There, the credit card company's objective was clear.
"He now leaves Beijing as a global sports icon," Michael Lynch, the head of global sponsorship management for Visa, said to a bank of television cameras, reporters and perhaps three dozen still photographers. Lynch pointed out that Phelps is already omnipresent here, his pictures on ATMs and kiosks. The objective of Phelps's sponsors, Lynch said, is to "expand Michael's presence in other markets."
The change in Phelps's presence since he surpassed Mark Spitz's record of seven golds was on display Monday. When Lynch introduced Phelps from a small stage and podium at the front of a room packed with various media, Phelps emerged from the back with a phalanx of black-suited security guards, each wearing an earpiece worthy of the Secret Service. As Phelps moved down an aisle toward the stage, the photographers -- many representing Chinese media outlets -- basically fought with each other, boxing Phelps in as they boxed each other out, a hairy scene worthy of paparazzi stalking a starlet. And when Phelps sat on the stage in a chair opposite Lynch, the photographers greeted his every hand gesture with a thousand clicks, almost drowning out his answers.
For nearly 40 minutes, Phelps took questions, and not just about swimming. "How many food can you feed in one day?" asked one Chinese television reporter. He was asked what he would say to a competitor from New Zealand (New Zealand TV), what he would say to a competitor from China (Chinese TV), and what was his best description of love (more Chinese TV). The Hollywood Reporter showed up, asking what advice he would give to Chinese celebrities. A reporter from the Harvard Lampoon asked where Phelps stood on the scientific debate about whether light is a particle or a wave.
"I have no idea what to really comment on that," he said, and moved on.
A couple of hours later, Phelps -- alone in that room -- appeared tapped out. He said he has grown used to his story being told over and over -- a product of divorced parents whose older sisters both swam, whose father is estranged, whose mother was once told by her son's middle school English teacher that "I was never going to be very successful," Phelps said. His dog, Herman, has appeared in commercials for Olympic coverage on NBC. He has revealed what's on his iPod before races (usually Lil' Wayne, occasionally Young Jeezy). His favorite Baltimore eating spot is Pete's Diner, where he'll soon resume having breakfast.
"There's really not much that I think the American public doesn't know about me," he said. "I've pretty much gotten just about every question you can imagine."
So part of celebrity is being able to deal with the repetitive inquisitions. Phelps has developed a defense for it, often preceding an answer in a news conference with, "I've said it before, and I'll say it again." Monday, he gracefully took queries that he has heard countless times in front of all those cameras and notebooks.
"It's always the same," he said, alone in the room. "I feel like a tape recorder. Just replay me."
The tape was to be rolled out later in the evening -- Monday morning back home -- for NBC's "Today." It will be rolled out again for an appearance with watchmaker Omega, another Phelps sponsor, later this week here. Then comes the travel, first to Michigan, where he trained for the past four years and where most of his possessions -- his clothes, his car -- still reside. He'll then be in London on Sunday, the day the Beijing Games close. He will be involved in the handoff from China to Britain, the Olympics' most decorated star gaining still more exposure.
Phelps has been on the cover of so many magazines -- TV Guide, Time, Sports Illustrated, Boys' Life, ESPN the Magazine, Parade, you name it -- that a friend texted him last week, before he swam for his 10th and 11th gold medals of his career, medals that would establish another new record. "Dude," the message read, "it's ridiculous how many times a day I have to see your ugly face."
Phelps's agent, Peter Carlisle of the McLean-based firm Octagon, is already fielding inquiries from new would-be sponsors. "Peter and I have to sit down and talk about the schedule," Phelps said Monday. Not just for the next few weeks, but the next four years.
Sunday night, Phelps was finally doing precisely what he wants to do now, "hanging out with my friends." They were in his room at his Beijing hotel. Suddenly, he found himself standing still.
"They asked, 'What's wrong?' " he said. "I said, 'I'm thinking of everything that's happened.' "
Part of what has happened is a transformation from swimmer to sports star, from sports star to celebrity.
"I'll get used to it," he said. "I'm already getting used to it."