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THE PARTY of the year in the swimming world took place not in Beijing's Water Cube in August but in a New York City hotel ballroom the week before Thanksgiving. The occasion was the Golden Goggle Awards, the Oscars of the amphibious set, and most of the 43 members of the U.S. Olympic swim team turned out for the splashy event. With their short skirts, high heels and ripped biceps the women were visions of powerful femininity. The dudes wore their tuxedos ironically, with shaggy hair and bow ties askew. Before the awards show began, there was a rip-roaring cocktail hour. The view of midtown Manhattan from the ballroom revealed the grand old Ziegfeld Theatre, which on this night was hosting a red-carpet premiere for the latest overwrought Hollywood drama. Despite the constellation of paparazzi flashes the assembled actors couldn't match the star power at the Golden Goggles.
Mingling with a cocktail crowd that had paid as much as $1,250 a ticket to attend was Dara Torres, swimming's answer to Diane Lane—a woman who only gets better as she gets older. Aaron Peirsol, in a rakish beard, was projecting the most laid-back California cool this side of Owen Wilson. Jason Lezak, with his intensity and receding hairline, called to mind a young Ed Harris. All the assembled team members had starring roles of varying magnitude in the blockbuster swim competition at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, but as the cocktail hour wore on, the 850 guests began scanning the crowd with increasing anxiety, searching for the one swimmer who was noticeably absent. Finally, an escalating buzz turned into a low roar, announcing the belated arrival of Michael Phelps.
Four beefy security guards couldn't hold off the crowd that instantly engulfed the 23-year-old Phelps. Middle-aged women dripping diamonds elbowed and snarled their way through the masses, desperately seeking his autograph. Teenage boys tugged at Phelps's elbow, hoping to get him to look their way for a snapshot. Phelps is undeniably a superstar now, but it is in the Jimmy Stewart vein—an unassuming everyman with whom others feel a strong kinship. Despite the surrounding bedlam Phelps, in a custom-made Armani tux, seemed to glide effortlessly through the throng, accommodating as many fans as possible between stops to warmly embrace his Olympic teammates.
Phelps remains an ordinary kid suddenly leading an extraordinary life, and he works hard to maintain some balance. His agents always ensure that there is security on hand to help him navigate big public appearances, but otherwise Phelps likes to travel unencumbered; that morning he had taken a train up from Baltimore by himself, only partially disguised by a droopy, Spitzian mustache that he was overly proud of (and later would be crestfallen to have to shave off to look presentable for the awards show). Phelps sat undisturbed in a commuter car as he fiddled around on a laptop with a Wi-Fi card, and upon arriving in New York he made his way through Penn Station and flagged down a yellow cab on the street without a single autograph request, a 21st-century Mr. Smith arriving in his Washington, with iPod. "You can't stop living your life," he says.
Once the Golden Goggle ceremonies began, Phelps was seated between his mother, Debbie, and his older sister Hilary, who in the Beijing drama were supporting actresses, watched voyeuristically by TV cameras as they lived and died in the stands with every race. The Goggles began with a rousing Olympic highlights package shown on huge screens at the front of the ballroom. "To this day I'm not sure the magnitude of what happened over there has hit me," says Phelps, and here was another chance to relive it. As the unforgettable images from Beijing played out, Debbie rubbed her son's back softly, and she and Hilary and Michael occasionally exchanged long, meaningful glances. By the time the video was over, enough emotion had been summoned that all three Phelpses were blinking back tears.
To the surprise of no one, Phelps collected much of the hardware, accepting the awards for Male Athlete of the Year, Male Performance of the Year and Relay of the Year with heartfelt speeches in which he thanked his family, coach Bob Bowman and his teammates, and expressed how proud he was to wear the Stars and Stripes. But asked later to pick out the highlight of the evening, Phelps didn't hesitate: "Having a relatively peaceful dinner with my mom and sister. That never happens anymore."
No sooner had the awards program ended than a mob of Sharpie- and camera-phone-wielding guests encircled Phelps, knowing this was their last chance to take home a piece of him. When a chair was knocked over in the crush, the hired muscle grabbed Phelps and hustled him out of the building. He didn't even have time to say a proper goodbye to his mom, who looked around the ballroom and wondered aloud, "What just happened here?"
WHAT HAPPENED is that for eight days in August, Debbie Phelps's son turned the Beijing Olympics into a serialized thriller with nightly installments that played out in prime time. Eight gold medals and seven world records would have been more than enough to secure his stardom, but Phelps's performance was made all the more unforgettable by two images for the ages: his primal scream punctuating an improbable U.S. comeback in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay on the second night of coverage, and the heart-stopping, fingertip-bending photo finish in the 100 butterfly for his penultimate gold. 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.
As a spectator sport swimming has always resided in the margins, and even during the Olympics it is often overshadowed by gymnastics and track. But in China, Phelps turned his every race into can't-miss television. "The Beijing Olympics was the most watched event in American history," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, referring to the 215 million U.S. viewers who tuned in over 17 days, "and it was almost entirely because of this wunderkind from Baltimore. What he accomplished transcended sport and became a cultural phenomenon."
With the finals of Phelps's races broadcast live between 10 and 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, "swim hangover" became an acceptable excuse for showing up late for work. And Phelps dominated the daylight hours as well. In office cubicles and dorm rooms and Wi-Fi'd coffee shops tech-savvy sports fans monitored Phelps's early-morning heat results and downloaded his races. During the Games nbcolympics.com logged 1.3 billion page views and 75 million viewings of video clips; among the 10,000 Olympic competitors, Phelps accounted for 20% of all athlete-specific traffic.