We know him as the boy next door from Rodgers Forge, the lean amphibian who will soon bring home a slew of Olympic hardware. But in the global community that his generation has made its own, 19-year-old Michael Phelps has become something much, well, hotter than all that.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Michael Phelps, International Babe Magnet, the latest teen heartthrob in a storied succession of rock stars, actors and athletes.
We're talking more about thousands of gushing admirers who hang out at fan Web sites and Internet guest books, such as Babsi from Austria ("I'm so fascinated by him"), Terhi from Finland ("He has just stolen my heart"), Owerri from Nigeria ("Biko Sepu Aka Gi Ebea"), Valentina from Italy, Zuzana from Slovakia, Ornella from Mexico, Ula from Poland, Aileen from New Zealand, and, not to be overlooked, Kirtana Banskota from Nepal, who, presumably swooning more from Phelps than from the altitude, writes from Katmandu (or so she claims), "I love the site maybe coz I love the guy."
The source of these testimonials is perhaps the most popular of the e-hangouts -www.michaelphelpsonline.com - a fan site created by a 22-year-old German, Josefine Litzau of Berlin. She built it four years ago but has lately seen it explode in popularity.
Phelps has an official Web site (www.michaelphelps.com), which is polished and professional, but Litzau's is where the action is for fans who want to shout out their allegiance.
"It all started in 2000 during the Olympics," Litzau said by e-mail. "I got interested in [Russian swimmer] Alexander Popov and fell in love with swimming through him. I didn't notice Michael besides in the 'Hey, good swimmer' way. That changed around Fukuoka [site of the 2001 world championships] when I decided I would do the website. I wasn't actually a big fan back then, just interested. It was just one of these very sudden decisions. I really turned into a big fan because of the Web site. I just read so much about Michael because of it and so on. I guess I would never have the patience for the website without being a big fan. It's just too huge now."
Huge, indeed, with a peak day Tuesday of 22,000 hits, meaning Lietzau had to buy extra bandwidth space and temporarily shut down the site's picture galleries to accommodate the traffic. At any given moment, the site is likely to be far more crowded than, say, Ryan's Daughter, the North Baltimore bar where his local admirers and swimming buddies gathered every evening last week to watch his Olympic broadcasts, or the Meadowbrook pool, where some Phelps fans seem to have become downright blase about his reflected glory.
Not the e-crowd. Not for a second. Especially the teenage girls among them, whom the bemused Lietzau refers to as "his harem." Their prevailing sentiment most often expresses itself as a breathless hormonal shriek, which so far has come gasping out of 38 states and 29 countries.
A typical approach was the guest book posting last Wednesday of Golnaz Dideban from California, who, like Phelps, is fluent in the codes and abbreviations of instant messaging.
"OMG OMG OMG!!" she began. (That's "Oh my God!" to the uninitiated. For the rest, you're on your own.) "this is the BEST website in the WORLD! I LOVE Michael Phelps s0o0o0o much. I have just recently become obsessed with him. now i try to watch EVERY one of his swims. OMG did n e one see the Relay last nite? WE WON AUSTRALIA!! SO IN UR FACE, sukas!! lol well i g2g. if n e one knows a place where i can send fanmail for him, can yall email me PLEASEE? thankx sooo much! Luv ya Michael if ur readin this..(probably not but oh well) Peace"
Through these sorts of declarations, we learn of various Phelps-watching habits, such as those of Kate, another Californian, who wrote, "I have watched you compete religiously and when your warming up and gettig ready to race I blast DMX's CD in my house hoping that it will help that's kinda cheesy but o well."
More than a few admirers noted with pleasure the tan line of his Speedo as it sank lower than that of an overweight plumber - not that they would ever use such a comparison.
"He is the hottest olympian ever!" gushed Kristi Hill of Illinois. "I love when he wears his bottoms so low you can see ever muscle on his body! I want to touch him!"
Marylanders elbow their way into this crowd from time to time. A few Baltimore visitors took a stand in apparent defense of his hometown girlfriend. They did so somewhat feebly, simply by pointing out - amid the gleeful yelps of admiration from all corners of the globe - that a girlfriend exists, noting her name, age and school, as if to say, "He's taken!"
The girlfriend, not exactly thrilled to learn of this when reached by phone in Athens, can at least take comfort she's not suffering the fate of the lovelorn Ellinoora, age 18, who wrote last Sunday, "I've been adoring Michael for 5 years. I live in Finland and someday I would like to meet him, but i thought it would be impossible, because i'm in other side of the world."
Not everyone comes to gush. Sumita from Los Angeles offered consolation after the day Phelps won two bronze medals, which ended this year's hopes of surpassing Mark Spitz's seven golds. "I hope you won't feel discouraged," she wrote two hours after the races and well before they were televised. "Using something my mom said when she found out (though it was in Hindi) 'Who cares if he didn't get 8 golds! He will probably get 8 medals and if he has done his best, then he is #1!' "
A few insist on discussing his merits as a swimmer, although those tend to be males. One or two lob the occasional taunt - "Go thorpy!" said a hit-and-run Aussie, referring to rival swimmer Ian Thorpe. And occasionally there are Baltimore visitors so polite, reserved and grammatical that you know they're from an older generation and think this is kind of quaint.
Janice Damon, a family friend and the office secretary from his alma mater of Towson High, wrote in May (when the site's output was far more subdued):
"So nice to read these wonderful things about you and how you inspire so many young people. You were a very special young man when I met you 5 years ago at Towson High School. The amazing thing is you would have been one of my favorite students even without the swimming because you are so much fun and very likeable. Your loud laugh is always fun to hear. As you know some of your biggest fans are living off of York Road. Before you leave I have to splash some of my holy water on you. Let's not keep the big guy out of this! Hope to see you at Fortunatos soon!"
The less lucky ones from all over the world will have to look for Phelps on their televisions, or out on the Internet.
Provided there's any bandwidth left, of course.