Now Phelps tackles fame

Sun reporter

Michael Phelps -- 14-time Olympic gold medalist and die-hardRavens fan -- could have used

Jonathan Ogden yesterday morning.Or at least someone like Ogden capableof throwing a block and giving himsome personal space.

Phelps strolled into the Prince JunPalace in Chaoyang Park for a Visa promotionalappearance less than 24hours after winning his eighth goldmedal in a single Olympics, and beforehe got halfway to the stage, a sea ofphotographers and reporters surgedtoward him like the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in a 40-man, all-out blitz.

Phelps looked briefly overwhelmed.So many photographers were pushingand shoving to get close -- flashes poppinglike strobe lights in a Europeandisco -- they practically climbed overhis mother, Debbie, forcing her tochange seats to avoid being trampled.Welcome, Mr. Phelps, to your newworld.

"It's going to be weird," Phelps acknowledged,sitting cross-legged in acushy chair while talking to a pair ofreporters in a quiet room hours later."But I think once you get used to it, it'sgoing to be fine. You see crazy things over here. Fans are so energetic overhere, and they love every athlete. Soyou kind of see that over here moreoften."

Will he be greeted similarly in theStates? The answer will have to wait afew days. Phelps is making appearanceson behalf of his various sponsorsthe rest of the week -- in addition toposing for a Mark Spitz-ian shot withhis eight gold medals for the cover ofSports Illustrated -- and then he'll flyto London on Sunday to serve as thelink between the 2008 and 2012 Gamesat the Beijing closing ceremonies.

"I'm going to do the handover for thenext Olympics and hopefully begin to for Beijing," Phelps said.

"Speechless" is the word Phelps keeps using to describehis feelings over the past two days, althoughhe has been asked to say plenty. It has been fascinatingto watch him handle a flood of questions thatrange from the bizarre to the inane.

What would you like to say to the people of NewZealand?

"It's a nice country," he said. "Kind of rainy. I'd liketo get back there."

What is your definition of love?

"I don't really know," he said. "The person I lovethe most is sitting in the front row -- my mom, foreverything she's done."What does Michael Phelps think of Michael Phelps?

"That is the one question I have no clue how toanswer."

For the most part, he is polished and corporate,already embracing his role as Ambassador of Swimmingas well as A-list corporate pitchman. Everyonewants a little piece of him.

"The last 24 hours, I've received probably four tofive thousand messages on my BlackBerry," Phelpssaid. "Every time I read a text message, I can't stopsmiling."

He also got a congratulatory call from President Bush, who watched Phelps' first two races from insidethe Water Cube last week.

"He was saying everyone in America is proud ofme and supporting, and then he told me to give mymom 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 concertin Jacksonville, Fla., to Phelps after he won hisseventh gold medal.

"That's pretty cool," said Phelps, before admittingthat he didn't have any Springsteen on his iPod."The amount of support from people following theOlympics and swimming from back home -- it's apretty cool feeling."

Financially, he is more or less secure for the rest ofhis life. Already financial analysts are predictingsponsorship deals in the neighborhood of $40 millionin earnings over the next four years. But his new levelof fame is likely to open different doors as well.

"I really, really want to meet Michael Jordan," saidPhelps, confessing that he used to put his hand onGatorade 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 inswimming. He completely changed the sport. I wantto 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 immediatefuture there will be sleep. He also plans to catchup on the Ravens -- someone at NBC handed himan inch-thick stack of articles Sunday about them --but he was so exhausted after so many interviewsyesterday, he could barely keep his eyes open.

What with celebrating, did he get much sleep afterwinning No. 8?

"Five or six hours," he said. "Not much. I need a lotmore than that."

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