Over the years, Michael Phelps has mastered the art of playing coy.
He has been answering reporters' questions since he was 15, and he knows exactly how much information his answers should reveal. When asked recently whether he thinks he'll be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, an honor that is expected to be announced today, Phelps offered a half-smirk and a roll of his shoulders.
In truth, Phelps knows precisely whether he's the magazine's pick this year. The interview and photo shoot are done well in advance, and all indications are that Phelps, who won eight gold medals this year in Beijing, is a virtual lock. If selected, he would be the first Maryland athlete since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995 to earn the distinction. But at age 23, he has mastered the art of politely deflecting inquiries that might make him seem presumptuous or controversial.
"I think to have an honor like that, following so many great athletes who've received that award ... it's hard to put into words what it would really mean," Phelps said two weeks ago, during a brief interview before the Golden Goggles swimming awards in New York. "It would be a huge honor, something I would cherish, to follow in the footsteps of someone like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, some of the greatest athletes in the world. To be in that same sentence would be pretty special."
Phelps doesn't sit still very often these days. His post-Olympic schedule has been packed with corporate obligations and personal ones. Although he was relatively famous before the Beijing Olympics, that life offered him virtual anonymity compared with the one he has now.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, became business partners by purchasing the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington, and he formed a foundation to introduce kids to swimming.
"It's just another way for him to impact other people and particularly the sport of swimming, which is one of his goals," Bowman said. "I hope we can put out some products that will be very attractive to people and that we'll teach a lot of people how to swim or swim better."
Phelps has been part of a media blitz. He was recently on the cover of GQ magazine, where he was honored as one of the Men of the Year. He was featured on the CBS news program 60 Minutes last weekend, showing off his Fells Point bachelor pad and discussing his post-Olympic life. He filmed a popular commercial for the video game Guitar Hero with Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez and Tony Hawk, in which the four athletes danced around in their underwear, re-creating the famous Tom Cruise scene from the movie Risky Business.
He regularly pops up in the gossip columns of US Weekly and People, in addition to less reputable ones on the Internet. There is steady speculation as to whom he's dating. People magazine and TMZ.com reported last week that his girlfriend - reportedly Las Vegas cocktail waitress Caroline Pal - spent Thanksgiving with Phelps and his family in Baltimore.
"Don't believe everything you read," Phelps has said often about the various rumors involving his personal life. "I don't have a girlfriend."
Phelps, though, stopped caring long ago what was written or said about him. He says he understands that such is the price of fame. In recent months he has focused mostly on enjoying himself. He's been making regular trips to Las Vegas and has reportedly been taking poker lessons from professionals such as Todd Brunson, with the goal of competing in the main event of the World Series of Poker next year. He recently made the final table and finished ninth out of 150 entrants in a no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament at Caesars Palace.
"I've been here and there," Phelps said. "I've been visiting some friends, just being able to relax and not do anything, have some of my own time, not getting up before noon. I've played some racquetball, some soccer and run a little bit - just do some other sports and try to stay active."
"That's the one place I wanted to be back in," Phelps said. "Back close to my family, close to my home turf. I know everything there. I've been going out to eat almost every night, getting back to the Baltimore scene of restaurants and food. I've been having a lot of crab cakes and crab dip. That's been something I've missed the last four years."
Phelps can feel the extra pounds he's put on. On 60 Minutes, he told Anderson Cooper that he had crept up to 205 pounds, the most he's ever weighed. Phelps hasn't been eating more; in fact, he's probably eating much less than when he was training. He just hasn't been in the pool much. That will soon change. In January, he plans to begin training for the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. That will help him gauge how much work he has to do to prepare for the 2012 Olympics in London.
"I know that once I start really getting back into it that walking up my flights of steps is not going to be fun or easy," Phelps said. "It's something I have to go through and deal with."
"Before long," said Bowman, "he'll be back in his mode where he just swims and then sleeps."