For Olympian, a new life

The Baltimore Sun

Burbank, Calif. - He has walked down the red carpet with Kid Rock, been a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards, filmed a skit with Jimmy Kimmel, been asked for autographs by celebrities, been a guest on Jay Leno's show, served as honorary bell ringer at the New York Stock Exchange and is rehearsing for his role as this week's host of Saturday Night Live.

So what has made the biggest impression on Michael Phelps as the record-breaking Olympic swimmer continues his fish-out-of-water victory parade around the globe?

On Monday, it appeared to be Javier Silva.

Javier, 7, joined his playmates at the Boys and Girls Club of Burbank to hear Phelps talk about a life beyond their imagination.

And after Phelps was done, Javier presented him with a gift, a leather bracelet he had made, adorned with eight small rings to represent the record eight gold medals Phelps won at the Beijing Olympics.

"I saw him swim and I wanted to make something for him," Javier said.

Several hours later, down the street at the NBC studios, Phelps was still wearing the bracelet as he walked off the set of The Tonight Show.

"This is priceless," he said, running his hand over it. "I think I'm going to leave it on."

The bond with kids seems genuine for Phelps, still a kid himself at 23. He feels he can transfer both his love of his sport and his work ethic to the next generation, putting swimming in the spotlight more than once every four years.

Phelps has backed this big commitment with big dollars. Awarded a $1 million bonus by the Speedo swimwear company for winning eight gold medals, Phelps is using the money to support swimming and youth activities in general through his foundation.

"As long as you stay focused," Phelps told his young fans Monday, "you can do anything you want."

What Phelps wants to do now is go home to Baltimore. Since Beijing, he has been to Portugal, London, New York, Orlando, Fla., back to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Burbank and New York again. A celebration to honor Phelps and other Maryland Olympians is set for Oct. 4 in Towson and Baltimore.

Phelps knew the world was watching as he plunged into uncharted waters in the Olympic pool by being part of seven world records. He heard from people at home how much attention he was getting.

But it didn't really sink in until he rode in a parade at the Disney entertainment complex in Orlando.

"I looked at the crowd," Phelps said. "I saw them yelling and screaming. I saw the priceless look on their faces and I thought, 'This could be pretty big.' "

Pretty big? Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, has found out just how big.

"It's beyond anything I've experienced," he said. "If he mentions he likes a certain car, the manufacturer is on the phone with me. Following the VMA awards, we went to the after-party. There were so many people around him that we were moved to the VIP section. Then we were moved to the [very, very important people] section. And he was even mobbed by the VVIP crowd."

In the eye of the whirlwind, Phelps has done something very unusual for him, something he probably hasn't done since he was Javier's age. He has stayed out of the pool.

But Phelps' absence from his comfort zone is only temporary. He plans to dive back into a full workout schedule in January or February with his sights set on the 2012 Olympics in London.

What is left to conquer? Isn't there a limit to how fast a swimmer can go?

"If you put a limit on anything," Phelps said, "you put a limit on how far you can go."

As Phelps left the Leno show late Monday afternoon, he waded into a sea of fans. With their pens, posters and cameras, they lined up outside the studio gate on Bob Hope Drive.

"When I get home," Phelps said to a reporter, "I'm hoping to get back into a normal routine."

The reporter responded, saying Phelps' life will never be normal again.

Phelps nodded.

"I know," he said.

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