Phenomenon Phelps slips into Beijing

BEIJING Mon Aug 4, 2008 5:39am EDT

1 of 2. Michael Phelps of the U.S. national swimming team takes pictures of photographers as he arrives at Beijing airport to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, August 4, 2008. The Games will open on August 8.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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BEIJING (Reuters) - American swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps slipped into Beijing through a side door on Monday.

With female fans, curious onlookers and a media scrum waiting for the man of the moment to arrive, the lanky 23-year-old Baltimore native preferred a quieter entry to a Games he threatens to dominate.

"He's already gone," a team spokeswoman told reporters as the rest of the U.S. swimming squad, with 19-year-old world record holder Katie Hoff leading the way, passed through the main arrivals hall at Beijing airport.

Another official said Phelps, aiming to match or beat compatriot Mark Spitz's 1972 record haul of seven golds in a single Games, had left through a side door.

The American is due to swim the 200 and 400m medley, the 100 and 200m butterfly, the 200m freestyle and three relays in Beijing and will pick up a $1 million bonus from sponsor Speedo if he wins seven events or more.

Even if he wins just half of them, Phelps will still become the most prolific gold medalist of all time, surpassing the record career tallies of nine shared by Spitz, U.S. athlete Carl Lewis, Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina.

At last year's world championships in Melbourne, the American won seven golds and missed out on an eighth when the U.S. were disqualified from the medley relay because of a team mate's error.

Phelps, known for his laser-like focus, is expected to have an army of handlers, U.S. officials and maybe even bodyguards to ensure distractions are kept to a minimum in Beijing.

Despite that, he said before leaving the U.S. training camp in Singapore he felt relaxed and refreshed.

"I've felt the best ever in the water here," he told reporters.

"Who knows what will happen in Beijing, time will tell. But I'm happy with where I am right now, I'm excited and I'm looking forward to going to Beijing and hopefully having a good meet."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; editing by Robert Woodward and Greg Stutchbury)

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