Phelps on SNL

Michael Phelps (center) appears with Lil Wayne and Amy Poehler on 'Saturday Night Live,' where Phelps was the host. Phelps created a stir at Rockefeller Center in New York. (Photo: NBC / September 11, 2008)

"It's so bad," Carlisle says. "But the ironic thing is, is that designers have been sending him tons of clothes. He has boxes of Armani just waiting to be opened, but he's still wearing the same old stuff."

Though Carlisle has known Phelps since the swimmer was 16 (he's now 23), sometimes he still can't get over his client's almost-eerie calm, that steely-eyed reserve in the face of intense pressure. Like on an Olympic starting block. Like now.

"Sometime I wonder if he even completely realizes what's happening," Carlisle says, laughing. "It's just such a great quality to have. He's ultra-cool but when that moment comes, he's on."

Meanwhile, Carlisle says Phelps has gotten cameo offers from essentially every show on television. But "going Hollywood," as he puts it, isn't the strategy. "We'll see if he enjoys it, see if he's good at it. It's too premature to start exploring opportunities beyond this."

Later in the afternoon Phelps is running through a Justice League skit. Not surprisingly, he's Aquaman - Aquaman just back from vacation, toting a fishing rod and tackle box. His fellow superheroes, it turns out, have hardly missed him. In fact, they've decided to fire him, since his water skills aren't exactly in demand.

"The whole time I was gone no one wanted to talk to a fish?" Phelps reads from the cue card with a helping of theatrical indignation. "Really? Really???"

A bit later Phelps is telling a reporter that in the studio, "I feel relaxed and I feel like I can be myself." The reporter wants to know how natural he feels delivering the Speedo fudging line before not only millions of viewers, but his mom, who's coming in from Baltimore for the show.

"Ah, fudge my Speedo, yeah," he says with a grin. "It's all in good fun, though I am interested in seeing her reaction. I think she'll like it. We'll see."

Minutes before the show goes live Saturday night, Debbie Phelps is indeed in the house. The best balcony seat, front and center, on the aisle, is reserved for her. Her daughter, Whitney, and son-in-law will be to her left. Across the aisle to her right is sportscaster Bob Costas, who's come to see the athlete he spent so much time talking about in Beijing.

A few seats down from the Phelps clan is the Springsteen clan - as in Bruce Springsteen, his wife, Patti Scialfa, and their children. Next to the rock star sits NBC News anchorman Brian Williams and his brood. There's Richard Schiff from The West Wing. There's celebrity chef Guy Fieri. There's Lenny Krayzelburg from the 2004 U.S. Olympic swim team. There's former SNL star Chevy Chase. There's the late Tim Russert's son, Luke.

But when announcer Don Pardo booms out the name Michael Phelps, and Phelps strolls on stage in a suit, and says with a wink, "This is like the ninth greatest moment of my life," he may as well be the only celebrity in the house. All those other stars? They're going crazy for him.

When his monologue ends and at-home viewers see a commercial, Phelps' handler yanks him off stage for a split-second costume change. In no time he's back on stage, out of the suit and into a blond, bowl-cut wig to play a home-schooled kid. He's sitting next to his skit "sister," SNL veteran Amy Poehler, in her own special hairdo, and cracking up - until the cameras are once again live.

Phelps, sprinting from the home-school skit to a would-be locker-room set for the swim team sketch, begins unbuttoning his shirt. Women in the audience began to shriek. By the time Phelps gets to the locker area, the shirt is altogether off. It stays that way for a few sweet seconds until the handler shoves a T-shirt and track jacket over Phelps' head.

The whole thing, start to finish, tickles Debbie Phelps, even the Speedo line, but especially the bit on The Michael Phelps Diet that poked fun at her son's now-infamous 12,000-calorie daily diet. "You know what," the eternally proud mom says, "he's going to do whatever he puts his mind to. He's got so many hidden talents."

As pleased as Mrs. Phelps was, the obsessed Kasey LaFlam, who got her shirtlessness, might be even happier.