Even though Michael Phelps is taking a break from the pool, he's still picking up honors.
The Rodgers Forge native yesterday became the first swimmer named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. He's just the third athlete from Maryland to be so honored.
Phelps - who appears on the cover of the magazine in a soaking wet tuxedo with his coat draped over his shoulder - is the sixth Olympian selected by the magazine, which has handed out the honor every year since 1954, when runner Roger Bannister won the award. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, now with the New York Jets, was last year's winner.
Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. won the honor in 1995, after he broke Lou Gehrig's streak of consecutive games played. Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park won in 1981.
Phelps' winning the award shouldn't have come as much of a surprise to anyone. The magazine, which will appear on newsstands Monday, called this year's countdown "the most anticlimactic campaign in the 55-year history of the honor."
"Michael Phelps as the 2008 Sportsman of the Year was the easiest choice I have made," Sports Illustrated group editor Terry McDonell said. "Look at what he did in Beijing last summer. I was there. I saw him race after race, win again and again. We all saw that. It is so obvious that he changed not only swimming, but also the entire Olympic landscape."
Phelps, who won eight gold medals in Beijing in August and became the most decorated Olympian in history, was in New York yesterday for the ceremony.
"When I received the call from Sports Illustrated that I was going to be named Sportsman of the Year, I was speechless," Phelps said. "Honestly, it is a huge honor to join the class of athletes who have won this award. SI's coverage of the Olympics over the years - especially this year - has been unbelievable."
Phelps has said throughout his career that one of his biggest goals was to elevate the sport of swimming into the mainstream. Although he acknowledged during the Olympics that will be difficult to achieve, it's fair to say he has raised the sport's profile considerably.
"USA Swimming has seen unprecedented growth at many of our 2,700 swim clubs across the country since the 2008 Olympic Games," said USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus. "We know that we owe this post-Olympic membership boost in large part to the awe-inspiring performances by Michael and his Olympic teammates this past summer."
Phelps now owns a second distinction that Mark Spitz - who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich - does not. Spitz didn't win Sportsman of the Year in 1972. UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden and tennis player Billie Jean King shared the honor that year.
The article, written by Sports Illustrated senior writer Alan Shipnuck, recognizes Phelps in part because "In the midst of a contentious presidential election and the first signs of a faltering economy, Phelps brought Americans together by the tens of millions, the TV serving as a portal to a faraway land and the outer limits of athletic achievement."
How does Phelps stack up against local legends such as John Unitas, Ripken and Babe Ruth in the eyes of Marylanders?
"That's something that's going to have to be determined by time," says Michael Gibbons, the executive director of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards. "But fresh off the Olympic victories, I'd say he should withstand the test of time with the best of them. What he did is unique. It's Ruthian, I guess you could say. It's kind of like a Babe Ruth story in that it's bigger than life. I think it's huge for Maryland."
Gibbons said the fact that Phelps has decided to again make Baltimore his home should only further endear him to Marylanders as time passes.
"Michael looks like he'll stick around here, and I think we appreciate that," Gibbons said. "You know, Babe Ruth did not stay. That's one of the things that Baltimoreans have trouble with. They don't consider Ruth one of their own because he made New York his home. Mike is staying around, and much like Carmelo Anthony, he gets it. He sees that it's good to invest back home, take care of the people where you came from."