Larger than life, but normal

The Michael Phelps media blitz found its way into the humble Boys & Girls Club of Burbank on Monday afternoon, as the 14-time Olympic gold medalist stopped in for a fireside chat with a few dozen wide-eyed youth who were flanked by a throng of reporters.

Weeks of traveling and promotion had clearly started to take its toll on the 23-year-old swimming sensation, who, on Monday, was just midway through his eight-city tour for his recently established Michael Phelps Foundation.

He had a few hours left before a planned appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The night before, he was a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards. A few days before that he was the star attraction on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

After “The Tonight Show,” he was to catch a red-eye flight to New York, where he was scheduled to open the New York Stock Exchange.

Before he could even sit down for a question-and-answer session with the after-school club’s children, Phelps endured yet another round of questions from the media horde on what it felt like to be a celebrity, to have caroused with the likes of Britney Spears at the MTV ceremony, to know top NBA players were among his “phans,” and did Lindsay Lohan really text message him after a gold medal race in Beijing?

He ignored the Lohan question, blushed about his NBA fans, and said meeting Spears and other celebs at the award ceremony “was pretty sweet.”

But all the hoopla and adoration has come with a price — in more ways than one. Phelps’ income is due to increase exponentially thanks to a slew of endorsements beyond that of Speedo, Omega and Power Bar, but with that celebrity comes an additional level of scrutiny.

Phelps’ endorsement of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and McDonald’s has invited criticism from the Children’s International Obesity Foundation, which released a statement in August chiding the Olympian for endorsing “substances suspected as agents of obesity.”

Asked to respond to the statement Monday, Phelps said that with his workout regimen, “I eat anything that I want to eat.”

Recognizing that not every child in the United States — where childhood obesity remains a major healthcare concern — exercises three to five hours a day, Phelps grinned sheepishly and said part of the goal of his foundation was to get more children in the pool and swimming.

He declined to reveal anything about his forthcoming book, due in December. And he shrugged off hype around his potential earning power and ambitions for the 2012 summer Olympics.

“I’ve never been in this position,” Phelps said. “I’m just going to enjoy the ride.”

Dressed in baggy shorts, a T-shirt and a wind-breaker, the subdued Olympian responded to the media with plenty of smiles and quiet answers that played more to the shy volume of his young group of fans sitting cross-legged before him.

Ranging in age from 6 to 18, the children spent most of their time just gazing at Phelps.

They were less interested in his plans to make swimming an “every-year sport” and more curious about what he had on his iPod, whether he had any enemies and what he did in his spare time.

“When we’re out of the pool, we’re just like normal people,” Phelps said.

Except “normal” people don’t hold seven world records, or haul a record 14 career gold medals, eight of them won in Beijing, also a record.

Still, it was enough for 8-year-old Alex Ander Carvajal to overlook.

“He talks normal, but he looks bigger,” he said.


 JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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