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From pool to fishbowl

Swimmer Phelps mixes in TV appearances with youth events in his victory lap after Games record

September 11, 2008|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

He has walked down the red carpet with Kid Rock, been a presenter at MTV's "Video Music Awards," filmed a skit with Jimmy Kimmel, been asked for autographs by celebrities, was a guest on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," served as the honorary bell ringer at the New York Stock Exchange and is rehearsing for his upcoming role as the host of "Saturday Night Live."

"I'm going to be on a comedy show, but I don't know if I can be funny," he said.

So what has made the biggest impression on Michael Phelps as the record-breaking Olympic swimmer continued his fish-out-of-water victory parade around the globe this week?

On Monday, it appeared to be Javier Silva.

The 7-year-old Silva joined his playmates at the Boys and Girls Club of Burbank to hear Phelps talk about a life beyond their imagination.

And after Phelps was done, Silva presented him with a gift, a leather bracelet he had made, adorned with eight small rings to represent the record eight gold medals Phelps won at the Beijing Olympics.

"I saw him swim and I wanted to make something for him," Silva said.

Several hours later, down the street at the NBC studios, Phelps was still wearing the bracelet as he walked off the set of the Leno show.

"This is priceless," Phelps said, running his hand over it. "I think I'm going to leave it on."

The bond with children seems genuine for Phelps, still a kid himself at 23.

He feels he can transfer his love of his sport and work ethic to the next generation, putting swimming in the spotlight more than just once every four years.

Phelps has backed this big commitment with big dollars. Awarded a $1-million bonus by the Speedo swimwear company for winning gold times eight, Phelps is using the money to support swimming and youth activities in general through his foundation.

"As long as you stay focused," Phelps told his wide-eyed young fans Monday, "you can do anything you want."

What Phelps would like to do now is go home to Baltimore. Since leaving Beijing, he has been to Portugal, London, New York, Orlando, back to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Burbank and New York once again.

Phelps knew the world was watching as he plunged into uncharted waters in the Olympic pool by being part of seven world records. He heard from people back home how much attention he was getting.

But it didn't really sink in until he rode in a parade at the Disney entertainment complex in Orlando.

"I looked at the crowd," Phelps said. "I saw them yelling and screaming, I saw the priceless look on their faces and I thought, 'This could be pretty big.' "

Pretty big? Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, has found out just how big.

"It's beyond anything I've experienced," he said. "If he mentions he likes a certain car, the manufacturer is on the phone with me. Following the 'VMA' awards, we went to the after-party. There were so many people around him that we were moved to the VIP section. Then we were moved to the VVIP [very, very important people] section. And he was even mobbed by the VVIP crowd."

In the eye of the whirlwind, Phelps has done something very unusual for him, something he probably hasn't done since he was Silva's age. He has stayed out of the pool.

No, he didn't swim home.

But Phelps' absence from his comfort zone is only temporary. He plans to dive back into a full workout schedule in January or February, with his sights set on the 2012 Olympics in London.

What is left to conquer? Isn't there a limit to how fast a swimmer can go?

"If you put a limit on anything," Phelps said, "you put a limit on how far you can go."

As Phelps left the Leno show late Monday afternoon, he waded back into a sea of fans. With their pens, posters and cameras, they lined up outside the studio gate on Bob Hope Drive.

"When I get home," Phelps said to a reporter, "I'm hoping to get back into a normal routine."

Your life, the reporter responded, will never be normal again.

Phelps nodded.

"I know," he said.

--

steve.springer@latimes.com

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