By Kevin Van Valkenburg
October 4, 2008
That's something he did in 2004, the first time he returned home from the Olympics to attend a parade in his honor. His mother, Debbie, responded in mock horror, and as his female fans squealed, Phelps flashed a cocky grin before reluctantly covering himself.
You won't see that from Phelps today because - sorry, ladies - he's more mature and more comfortable with his fame. His life is more scripted than spontaneous. He also understands that, after winning more gold medals in a single Olympics than anyone else in history, he is as much a brand now as he is an Olympic athlete. Each public appearance represents an opportunity to solidify his status as a coveted corporate pitchman and to help the sport of swimming grow.
He knows his window won't stay open forever. Olympic athletes have a notably short shelf life. And so he intends to capitalize on these moments. He will smile today, soak up the applause, shake hands with politicians and minor celebrities, and then he'll be whisked off to something new: a new marketing campaign, a talk show, a Boys and Girls Club appearance, a speech to a group of CEOs.
Phelps will be honored today in a "Parade of Gold" in Towson and tonight during a "Star-Spangled Salute To Michael Phelps" at Fort McHenry. Ellen Kobler, Baltimore County spokeswoman, said there is no firm estimate on how many people will attend the parade, but "thousands" are expected. In 2004, about 10,000 people attended a similar celebration for Phelps.
Other honorees in the parade include Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff and Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long.
Phelps the pitchman is living a delicate tightrope act, with the potential for overexposure, but it's a challenge Team Phelps is happy to emBRACe. Swimming has taken a back seat to the promotion of swimming. Recently, he jumped into the pool for the first time in five weeks.
"It's weird not having swimming or working out be a part of your life when you've done it every day for the last 10 years," Phelps said. "It's strange, but it's a good feeling, too."
With recent appearances on Oprah, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show helping boost his profile further, the demand for Phelps has become even more intense. His agent, Peter Carlisle, has estimated that Phelps could be worth as much as $100 million in endorsements during the rest of his career. According to the most recent Davie-Brown Index, which tracks a celebrity's "ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent," Phelps is now the most coveted endorser in the United States, ahead of Michael Jordan, Tom Hanks and even Tiger Woods.
His schedule hasn't entirely been about endorsements and award shows, however.
"At every one of the cities we've been to, he's talked to a local Boys and Girls Club," said Drew Johnson, Phelps' media manager. "That's something that's very important to him."
Phelps was in Baltimore last week to promote his endorsement of Kellogg's products and to accept a $250,000 check from the company for his foundation. He frequently cites forming the Michael Phelps Foundation as the most exciting thing he has done since the Olympics.
Phelps caused a minor stir last week in an interview with radio talk show host Dan LeBatard when he brought up the charitable foundation as the best thing to happen since the Olympics and LeBatard wasn't buying it. He then tweaked Phelps about recent Internet photos of him at a Las Vegas strip club, and Phelps cut off the conversation, but not before he could be heard telling someone that LeBatard was an "idiot."
Ask Phelps how he's dealing with a loss of privacy and he just shrugs.
"There's nothing I can do," Phelps said. "Every part of my life is out there, pretty much. I try to keep some things private and just have a few parts of my life that I'm the only one that knows about. It's hard. Everyone talks. Some of it's true, some of it's not."
Life will likely calm down once he resettles in Baltimore and eventually begins training again with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Phelps clearly jumped the gun a bit when he said, days after the Olympics, that he and his coach, Bob Bowman, had purchased a pool and were planning to expand the club's facilities at Meadowbrook Athletic Club. No such deal has been finalized, though an agreement appears to be on the horizon.
"I haven't really been in the whole mix of stuff that's going to happen," Phelps said. "We're still discussing everything that's going to happen, or supposedly going to happen. I've been on the road. I haven't really been caught up with what's going on."
The next goal for Phelps, Bowman and NBAC will be to attract more "postgraduate" swimmers to train in Baltimore and possibly reach an agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee to get funding for the program here. However, nothing has been nailed down.
"Right now, it's Katie [Hoff] and I," Phelps said. "If we could get more postgrads, people who are training and working toward what we're training to go to, I think that would be the biggest thing. One of the coolest things over the last year was really being able to have the other guys and girls I trained with in Michigan. That was a big part of my success."
For the Baltimore swimming community, the biggest thrill is simply having Phelps back.
"The parade is going to be unbelievable," said Murray Stephens, the founder and CEO of NBAC, who will soon hand the reins of the company to Bowman. "It's amazing how recognized the sport has become in the media and the general public. Really, that was one of the goals all along, and when Michael says that he wants to change the sport, well, he is.
"It filters down to the kids when they see swimmers treated like real athletes," Stephens said. "I don't think I ever envisioned it could be quite the way it is right now. Michael is going to continue to add to that, particularly in the local area."
Parade of Gold When: 3 p.m.
Where: On York Road in Towson, from Burke Avenue south for 1.3miles to the Drumcastle Government Building. Two dozen streets will be blocked off at their intersections with York Road.
Who: Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, Jessica Long and other athletes
Performers: Ravens cheerleaders and mascot Poe, the Orioles Bird, antique cars, marching bands from Milford Mill Academy, Loch Raven, Parkville, Towson and Dulaney high schools
Parking: Free at four public garages in downtown Towson and at two Towson University garages; meters on Towson streets will be free from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Star-Spangled Salute When: 7 p.m., with fireworks at 7:50 p.m.
Where: Fort McHenry
Performers: Naval Academy Concert Band, Morgan State University Choir, Chopteeth, Reverb and The Players Band
Host: Billy Bush of Access Hollywood
Parking: Cars will be barred from Fort McHenry. Parking will be available by reserving a spot online with a small processing fee in lots at M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, with free shuttle buses to Fort McHenry.
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