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Michael Phelps -- 14- time Olympic gold medalist and die-hard Ravens fan -- could have used
Jonathan Ogden yesterday morning. Or at least someone like Ogden capable of throwing a block and giving him some personal space.
Phelps strolled into the Prince Jun Palace in Chaoyang Park for a Visa promotional appearance less than 24 hours after winning his eighth gold medal in a single Olympics, and before he got halfway to the stage, a sea of photographers and reporters surged toward him like the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in a 40-man, all-out blitz.
Phelps looked briefly overwhelmed. So many photographers were pushing and shoving to get close -- flashes popping like strobe lights in a European disco -- they practically climbed over his mother, Debbie, forcing her to change seats to avoid being trampled. Welcome, Mr. Phelps, to your new world.
"It's going to be weird," Phelps acknowledged, sitting cross-legged in a cushy chair while talking to a pair of reporters in a quiet room hours later. "But I think once you get used to it, it's going to be fine. You see crazy things over here. Fans are so energetic over here, and they love every athlete. So you kind of see that over here more often."
Will he be greeted similarly in the States? The answer will have to wait a few days. Phelps is making appearances on behalf of his various sponsors the rest of the week -- in addition to posing for a Mark Spitz-ian shot with his eight gold medals for the cover of Sports Illustrated -- and then he'll fly to London on Sunday to serve as the link between the 2008 and 2012 Games at the Beijing closing ceremonies.
"I'm going to do the handover for the next Olympics and hopefully begin to for Beijing," Phelps said.
"Speechless" is the word Phelps keeps using to describe his feelings over the past two days, although he has been asked to say plenty. It has been fascinating to watch him handle a flood of questions that range from the bizarre to the inane.
What would you like to say to the people of New Zealand?
"It's a nice country," he said. "Kind of rainy. I'd like to get back there."
What is your definition of love?
"I don't really know," he said. "The person I love the most is sitting in the front row -- my mom, for everything she's done." What does Michael Phelps think of Michael Phelps?
"That is the one question I have no clue how to answer."
For the most part, he is polished and corporate, already embracing his role as Ambassador of Swimming as well as A-list corporate pitchman. Everyone wants a little piece of him.
"The last 24 hours, I've received probably four to five thousand messages on my BlackBerry," Phelps said. "Every time I read a text message, I can't stop smiling."
He also got a congratulatory call from President Bush, who watched Phelps' first two races from inside the Water Cube last week.
"He was saying everyone in America is proud of me and supporting, and then he told me to give my mom a hug and tell her the president sent it," Phelps said. Even cooler, perhaps, was hearing that Bruce Springsteen dedicated "Born in the USA" at a concert in Jacksonville, Fla., to Phelps after he won his seventh gold medal.
"That's pretty cool," said Phelps, before admitting that he didn't have any Springsteen on his iPod. "The amount of support from people following the Olympics and swimming from back home -- it's a pretty cool feeling."
Financially, he is more or less secure for the rest of his life. Already financial analysts are predicting sponsorship deals in the neighborhood of $40 million in earnings over the next four years. But his new level of fame is likely to open different doors as well.
"I really, really want to meet Michael Jordan," said Phelps, confessing that he used to put his hand on Gatorade bottles that carried Jordan's handprint in the supermarket, just to see how he measured up. "What he did in basketball is what I want to do in swimming. He completely changed the sport. I want to meet Tiger too. And Weezy [rapper Lil' Wayne]. But I really, really want to meet Jordan."
There will be time for all that, but in the immediate future there will be sleep. He also plans to catch up on the Ravens -- someone at NBC handed him an inch-thick stack of articles Sunday about them -- but he was so exhausted after so many interviews yesterday, he could barely keep his eyes open.
What with celebrating, did he get much sleep after winning No. 8?
"Five or six hours," he said. "Not much. I need a lot more than that."