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BEIJING 2008 / Countdown to the Summer Olympics: 5
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Beyond Face Value

The six gold medals (and two bronze) at Athens in '04 barely begin to tell you about Michael Phelps, the marquee American name of the Beijing Games

August 03, 2008|Kevin Van Valkenburg | Baltimore Sun

For most of his life, Michael Phelps has had little interest in self-reflection.

Occasionally, though, when he is away from the swimming pool and when he is bored, he will type his name into Google images and stare at snapshots people have taken of him over the years.

It is not an exercise in vanity. He likes to think about who he was in that brief and frozen moment.

"There are some after races where I like how intense I look," he says. "I can see the picture and just replay everything that was going through my head at that moment."

Beyond that, he does not like to look back. He doesn't think much about the moments and the forces that shaped him. Especially not as he prepares for the start of the Beijing Olympics this week.

It's an event many expect will be the pinnacle of his career. NBC, which paid a reported $800 million for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, has decided to make Phelps the face of the Games. You'll see him every time you turn on your television, and not just in the pool. He'll be featured in commercials pitching everything from low-interest credit cards and designer watches to skin-tight swimsuits and energy bars.

He insists he has never let any of it go to his head. It's a lesson he learned when he returned home from Sydney in 2000 after competing in his first Olympics at age 15. His mother, Debbie, had blanketed his house in Rodgers Forge, Md., with banners and American flags to celebrate his return. Phelps' stern coach, Bob Bowman, was dropping him off after driving from the airport, and when he saw the display, he was not happy.

"Bob was like, 'Debbie, take those down! We don't need those up, there is so much more that's going to happen. We can't do this for everything,' " Phelps says. "I think it was then that I realized you can't get caught up on one thing. You just have to keep going."

When you watch Phelps swim in Beijing -- when you tune in to see whether he can accomplish the unprecedented, winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics -- know that is possible only because of what happened in the last four years. After he won six gold medals in Athens.

The fist pumps at the end of a race and the grinning poses atop the medal stand aren't as important as the moments that took place when few were watching.

Those moments show a teenager outgrowing his adolescence and coping with unexpected fame. There is triumph and disappointment, but also growth.

Study them, and you begin to see how time and pain -- two of the most powerful forces in a swimmer's life -- have shaped the second act of Phelps' career.

You'll see how a great Olympic swimmer navigated the choppy waters between boyhood and manhood and in the process became, at age 23, the greatest swimmer of all time.

The big mistake

IT'S NOV. 15, 2004, and on the "Today" set, just a few minutes after 7 a.m., a 19-year-old Phelps sits across from host Matt Lauer. Wearing a black Speedo polo shirt and gray slacks, Phelps looks nervous and uncomfortable. There are bags under his eyes, and his gaze rarely leaves his lap for more than a few seconds.

Eleven days earlier, he was in Salisbury, Md., visiting his best friend. He had a few drinks at a party. In the years leading up to Athens, every decision was made with swimming in mind, so after the Olympics he was given time to decompress. To be a kid. To leave the pool and make mistakes.

After leaving the party, he rolled through a stop sign while making a right turn in his Land Rover. He was pulled over and charged with driving while intoxicated.

This is his first television interview since the arrest.

"For that 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl who's got the poster of Michael Phelps up on the wall in their bedroom, and they're throwing on the swim cap every day running to the pool to try and be like Mike, what do you say?" Lauer asks.

"I definitely let myself down and my family down," Phelps says, his voice barely a mumble. His eyes only briefly meet Lauer's.

"Let me just ask you for the record," Lauer says. "Do you have a problem with alcohol, or is this an isolated incident?"

"This was an isolated incident," Phelps says.

The past week, Phelps adds, has been one of the hardest of his life. He could not look his mother in the eye when she met him at his lawyer's office after his arrest. He had to sit on a plane and watch people read stories about his arrest.

"I think I let a lot of people in the country down," he says. "Hopefully I still have people out there who are fans and who are supporters."

He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, got 18 months' probation and had autograph seekers waiting for him in the parking lot after he left the courtroom. He spoke to kids about the dangers of alcohol. His sponsors stuck by him. These days, you will never see him photographed in public with a drink in his hand. Four years later, it remains one of his least favorite subjects.

Ask him to name the dumbest thing he has ever done and you'll get an interesting answer.

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