Phelps' butterfly moves from pool to stomach

The Baltimore Sun

Michael Phelps is strolling the red carpet with rock stars.

He's sitting knee-to-knee with Oprah, signing book deals, making cameos, commanding attention from Access Hollywood, canoodling - as the tabloids say - with young ladies, endorsing products and ringing the New York Stock Exchange opening bell.

Earlier this week, he's hunched into Jay Leno's seat of honor, squirming a bit as the host prods him about what a big deal it will be to host Saturday Night Live (which he's doing tonight on NBC).

"That's got to be exciting!" Leno says.

Phelps draws a deep, anxious breath and admits that just the night before, at the MTV Video Music Awards, he wrestled with a major case of nerves before introducing a rap star on live TV. SNL, he doesn't need to add, only means more camera time, more lines, more chances to mess up, more national scrutiny and so, so much more heart-thumping anxiety.

"For the run-through I felt fine, like not nervous at all," the Olympian tells Leno. "But when I got there, I was like, 'Oh gosh, this is going to be tough.' "

It didn't seem tough for Phelps a month ago in Beijing, when he sliced through the pool with unparalleled speed and drive to bring home more gold than any athlete in history.

And yet with this new business of celebrity, in which he's immersed up to his ears, the 23-year-old Baltimore native is struggling for footing.

It's a transition that has tripped up many a sports star but vaulted others - Michael Jordan, Terry Bradshaw, Lance Armstrong, the Williams sisters, the Manning brothers, Shaquille O'Neal - to even higher stratospheres of success.

As for how successful a pitchman or entertainer Michael Phelps can be, "the jury is still out," says Matt Eventoff, a partner with PPS Associates, which trains business people, politicians and entertainers for public appearances.

"If he puts his heart into his message and his speaking style the way he did in his swimming, the sky is the limit."

As Phelps attempts to pull off a funny monologue tonight and tries his hand at acting in a number of skits, people should get a decent read on the likelihood of his following other sports heroes to second careers on the big and small screens.

In a conference call with the media between rehearsals Thursday, Phelps said the nerves he felt at the MTV awards have ebbed, replaced with excitement to perform on the same stage as Adam Sandler and the late Chris Farley - his favorite SNL alums.

He said he has been playing phone tag with actor/comedian Ashton Kutcher, looking for advice at being funny - he met Demi Moore, Kutcher's wife, at the MTV awards, and Moore told Phelps that Kutcher could help him.

SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels predicted Phelps would draw laughs on the show and joked, "No matter what happens, they can't take those medals away." Michaels added, "He's not suddenly going to be a professional sketch player, but he'll do just fine."

Even if Phelps is only after more endorsement deals or eventual commentator gigs, talent pros say he will most definitely need to refine his style.

And he'll have to work at it, the way he logged hours perfecting his starts, turns and dolphin kicks, says Dan Weedin, a Seattle-based speech coach who has worked with the Seattle Sonics and Storm men's and women's pro basketball teams.

"Olympic champions like Michael Phelps must realize that in order to be as successful in speaking, they need to put in the same amount of training that they do for their sports," Weedin says.

"Being able to connect with an audience takes strategy, planning and plenty of practice with a mentor or coach."

Based on what he has seen of Phelps so far, Weedin approves of his laid-back, relaxed style. He thinks Phelps comes across as someone people want as a friend.

But he'd advise Phelps to throw away the flip-flops and hoodie he wore on Leno. Then Weedin would help him lose his habit of larding sentences with "uh" and "you know."

"I would love to see him take the Michael Jordan approach and dress for the show," Weedin says. "For a talk show, he'd do better to at least be in business casual - a dress shirt, no tie, maybe a jacket. That comes with someone mentoring him."

As a swimmer, all Phelps had to worry about was getting to the pool and swimming the fastest. But celebrity invites scrutiny.

Blogs erupted with critical chatter after Phelps' appearance on the MTV awards. Mercy for a newcomer apparently isn't part of the equation.

The Associated Press said Phelps spoke so low that no one could hear him. An Australian Web site thought the swimmer's choice of a black jacket, white shirt and jeans lacked "any sense of style." And someone typed on the Web service Twitter: "Phelps not very good at reading a prompter. Could this spell disaster for his SNL hosting gig next week? Uh oh!"

The road to full-blown celebrity is littered with sports stars who excelled at their game but, for any number of reasons, never became true household names.

Just a glance at superstar athletes who've hosted SNL through the years - the hottest names in the country at a given moment - shows that even this honor doesn't guarantee anything beyond fleeting marquee status: Andy Roddick. Joe Montana. "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler. Wayne Gretzky. Chris Evert.

Parlaying success in sports into something more might be harder still for Olympians, whose time to shine comes just every four years.

In 1996, gymnast Kerri Strug had the world at her feet after landing a gold-medal vault on an injured ankle but she faded away shortly thereafter amid jokes about her squeaky voice.

Others, like skaters Apolo Anton Ohno and Kristi Yamaguchi, have been able to bolster their celebrity by competing on Dancing with the Stars.

There's no question it's Phelps' moment to use or lose. The talent experts say how long that moment lasts is up to him.

"Michael is a very 'in' commodity right now, and that 'in-ness' tends to leave fairly quickly," Eventoff says, adding that Phelps, very soon, must find a message. In blunter terms: He needs to find something to say.

All the charisma in the world - which he thinks Phelps has in spades - isn't in itself the foundation for a long-term career.

"The platform that athletes are given is a tremendous blessing, as well as responsibility," Eventoff says. "Not having a central message, or even worse, having nothing to say, is the quickest way to oblivion."

Having a message, Eventoff says, means that someone should be able to express who he is, what he cares about, what matters to him and why anyone should care.

Phelps has made clear strides in this regard by donating the $1 million bonus he got from Speedo to establish a swimming foundation and by allowing cameras to capture the loving relationship he shares with his ever-present mom.

Phelps may not be "a natural media personality," says Jay P. Granat, a psychotherapist who works with athletes, but he's got a "Midwestern unpretentiousness" that, combined with his Olympic fame, can sell everything "from soup to swimwear."

"He's got the intangibles - sincerity, humor, humility, charm, consistency," Weedin concludes. "He also has something others would love to have: opportunity."

Saturday Night Live, NBC (Channel 11, 4), 11:30 tonight

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