After Eight Gold Medals, What's Next For Phelps?

Post columnist Sally Jenkins talks about Michael Phelps winning his record eighth gold medal of the Beijing Olympics.
By Barry Svrluga and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 18, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 17 -- Michael Phelps will take the quaint moments with him, the games of spades and Risk against his dormmates in the Athletes' Village, the chance meeting with tennis star Rafael Nadal in which the swimming Olympian was the dumbstruck one. There was, too, the hug with his mother -- whom he scarcely saw during the entire Olympics. He will pack each swimsuit, each cap, each pair of goggles, keepsakes all as he heads back to Maryland, where he will again make his home town his home.

He will return with his eight gold medals to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club that produced him. His coach, Bob Bowman, is taking over the club, and Phelps will move into a house he bought in Baltimore, back to his roots. His mother, Debbie -- who squealed with every win here and whose facial contortions were a fixture on NBC's live prime-time telecasts-- will be nearby, as will his older sisters. His dog, Herman, will come along, too.

"I'm really looking forward to going home," he said.

For now, though, he will hang around Beijing, lapping up the rewards. Matching Mark Spitz already earned him a $1 million bonus from Speedo, the swimwear manufacturer. He will have media events and lavish parties over the next week sponsored by such companies as Visa and Omega, the watchmaker. As the all-time leader in gold medals, he surely will become the richest Olympian as well.

"I'm not doing this for the money," he said.

He is, rather, doing it to change his sport, which remains largely out of the public eye except for one week every four years. Through all those training laps and card games, through all the bus rides to and from the pool here, Bowman at his side all the while, that is what he said he wanted most.

"I want to raise the bar in the sport of swimming some more," he said. He noted that 70,000 people remained at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore following a Ravens preseason game to watch Phelps in the butterfly leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay.

"Four years ago, that never would have happened," he said. "I think it can go even farther. That's where I hope to take it."

He'll have plenty of stories to tell along the way, about how a 23-year-old product of divorced parents who grew up with his mother in Baltimore County, controlled himself physically and mentally in executing the seemingly impossible. It brought a reflection on Spitz, whose record Phelps surpassed on Sunday, when he finished a perfect meet here with a victory in the 4x100-meter medley relay.

"What he did is an amazing feat," Phelps said. "Being able to have something to shoot for, it made those days when you were tired and didn't want to work out, it made those days easier, to look at him and say, 'I want to do this.' I'm thankful for having him do what he did."

There, then, was an admission from Phelps of what drove him not only to become an Olympian, which he first did as a 15-year-old in Sydney. Phelps is one who needs goals, and though he stated repeatedly that only he and Bowman truly knew what they were, he wrote them down, kept them in his head. If someone could win seven in a single Games, which Spitz did in 1972, Phelps figured he could surely win eight.

Spitz, though, can no longer serve as a motivator. Phelps restated his commitment to swim in 2012 at the London Olympics. If he does, he will participate in his fourth Games at age 27, already owning 14 gold medals. But if he does, he likely will perform as a different swimmer after different achievements.

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