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BEIJING 2008

Phelps' star won't fade any time soon

August 18, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Beijing

Most stars, they don't stick.

The tearful tiny gymnast, the skeet shooter in baggy jeans, the sprinter who wins a gold medal and runs into the stands to hand it to her sick aunt -- they don't stick.

Folks in the United States remember Olympic champions about as long as they remember exhibition season football scores.

Quick, which American woman won the 100-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics?

Hint: Joanna Hayes was great, gold, and gone.

The life span of the average Olympic champion has three phases.

You throw out a first pitch in Pittsburgh.

You do something dumb on Conan. You disappear for at least four more years.

All of which makes the last nine days such a giant splash, because Michael Phelps is going to stick.

In the wake of winning a single-Olympics record eight gold medals, he's going to leave a wake that lasts for years.

He may not be Mary Lou Retton or Peggy Fleming, but he could be at least Mike Eruzione, and he certainly will endure publicly longer than Mark Spitz.

Michael Phelps will stick simply because, well, he's Michael Phelps -- goofy gait, big ears, crooked grin, loves mom, a regular kid who has arrived at an extraordinary time.

Here are eight reasons:

The swimmer is a Schwimmer.

He just finished a weeklong run on a hugely watched prime-time television show, becoming the most-watched dork since Ross on "Friends."

No other athlete in history has been watched in competition by more people on more consecutive days.

If it works for "American Idol," it will work for the American idol.

He is a loose wire.

He has been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. He has broken his wrist in what he claimed was a stumble, although few believe him.

He is younger than 23, more immature than a guy making $5 million a year, a kid who can act very fishy out of water.

Chances are, he will make some kind of mess, and you know how America loves to watch a mess.

He makes a mess, he cleans it up.

A couple of months after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, The Times' Lisa Dillman was wandering through a Los Angeles bookstore when she received a phone call from Phelps' public relations firm.

"Michael has been arrested for drunk driving, do you want to talk to him?" said a voice.

"Give me a couple of minutes, I need to buy a notebook," Dillman said.

On that day, Phelps called every major swimming reporter in the United States to apologize for his actions.

He will sometime forget about his public image, but, once damaged, he and his representatives are not too proud to publicly fix it.

He is still a man of mystery.

We saw his mother, Debbie, all week, but what about his father? They are apparently estranged, but little else is known.

We saw women screaming after Phelps all week, but what about his girlfriend? Does he have one? Do we know her?

Because of his smartly controlled image, there is still much about him America doesn't know, and is dying to find out.

Michael Phelps, meet TMZ.com.

He still loves his fans.

Kevin Van Valkenburg, who covers Phelps for the Baltimore Sun, waited an hour for an interview this year while Phelps signed autographs in Columbus, Ohio.

Several times this week, Phelps has pointed with pride to incidents of mainstream America following swimming, from a scoreboard video in his Baltimore hometown to a prominent placement on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

He deeply cares what America thinks, which is a big step toward getting America to care.

He still loves his teammates.

In a meet in Columbia, Mo., this year, there was this tall, rangy guy walking up and down the sidelines screaming at swimmer Erik Vendt.

It was Phelps, whose most emotional moments this week occurred while doing the same thing, pumping his fist and hollering at teammates.

America sees so little of that sort of behavior from a superstar, America never forgets it.

Bob Bowman is Phil Jackson.

After winning his eighth gold medal Sunday, Phelps told the media that he would like to try swimming sprints.

Bowman told the media he didn't think Phelps wanted to work hard enough.

For a dozen years, Bowman has handled the incredibly gifted Phelps the way Jackson handled Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

He knows when to tweak him, he knows how to push him, and he'll know when to intervene if Phelps starts to sink.

Michael Phelps is nuts.

Yes, for his next act, he is going to try those sprints, maybe show up in London in four years with spots in the 100 freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke.

In 2004, Gary Hall Jr. won a gold medal in the 50 freestyle at age 29.

In 2012, Phelps will be 27, so anything can happen.

We might be cheering. We might be cringing. But we will be watching.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plachke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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About the cover

The cover illustration, a mosaic portrait made up of the hundreds of photos taken of Michael Phelps, his teammates and his medals during the Beijing Games, was created by Greek visual designer Charis Tsevis -- who's also a fan of Phelps'.

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