Because Third World nations typically do little to support female athletes, the ratio of males to females at the world championships was 2 to 1. That ratio is reversed in the United States, in part because college athletic programs fund more swim scholarships for women than men, saying that's needed to meet Title IX obligations. Swimming officials hope that Phelps will boost the appeal of their sport among athletic boys.

Mia Hamm of the pool?

Phelps certainly seems up for that task. On his first visit to Octagon's offices in McLean, Va., he said that his No. 1 goal wasn't wealth or world titles, but elevating the profile of swimming. Carlisle offered soccer player Mia Hamm, another client of Octagon, as a corollary.

"If we want Michael to influence and attract a whole new generation of swimmers, as Mia Hamm did with soccer," said Carlisle, who has never before represented a swimmer, "then we have to somehow involve companies and categories which previously never considered working with the sport. It takes creativity, and commitment. We're talking long-term deals."

Spitz never swam after the 1972 Olympics as the amateur code of the day labeled him a professional after he was paid to pose by a German magazine. The man who came closest to his feat - Matt Biondi, who won five gold medals in swimming in 1988 - works in obscurity. He taught high school math in Hawaii last year.

Octagon and Speedo shared the expense of hiring a public relations firm to tutor Phelps on public-speaking skills. He has matured from a hyperactive child into a focused young man who was most engaging in Barcelona after his only loss of the year.

His handlers don't want to do too much polishing, because part of Phelps' appeal is that of a typical American teen-ager, albeit one whose bedroom is more like a showroom in an electronics store. As Phelps said after one of his world records, financial rewards are nice because "I get to buy stuff."

Still, despite his eight world records this year, Phelps' base salary won't approach that of a .215-hitting second baseman because Major League Baseball's minimum annual salary is $300,000.

Octagon decided it was best to build locally before it goes globally. Phelps is a partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harford County. He will appear today at a local fund-raiser for autism.

'NBC's poster boy'

It's a big jump to being "NBC's poster boy next summer," the role that swim analyst Rowdy Gaines has predicted for Phelps.

The network has paid the International Olympic Committee billions of dollars to be the American broadcaster of the games through 2012. That might seem a bad investment, given the doping and bribery scandals that mark every Olympiad, but the games and their athletes still have an allure.

"The Olympics are good business and much more than a sporting event," NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol told the Chicago Tribune in June. "They are the only great family viewing experience left on American TV, the only thing that puts Mom, Pop and kids in front of the TV at the same time."

Add NBC to the list of those leaning on the broad shoulders of this Towson teen-ager. CBS had Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon. Fox has The Simpsons' Homer, NBC is hoping that its 2004 Olympic miniseries will have an equally memorable leading man - Michael Phelps.

Sun staff researchers Antonieta Villalobos and Jean Packard contributed to this article.