BEIJING (Reuters) - Michael Phelps moves through the water like a dolphin but when he is back on dry land, he may as well be trapped in a goldfish bowl.
By winning an unprecedented eight gold medals in Beijing, Phelps instantly became one of the most recognizable sportsmen in the world and his life will never be the same again.
The American was close to exhaustion after swimming 17 races in nine days in Beijing, but he will need even more stamina to get through the next few weeks.
He has already been inundated with phone calls, messages, media interviews and sponsorship commitments and a hectic travel schedule as he starts to count the cost of fame.
He took a call from U.S. President George W. Bush, who told him to make sure he hugged his mother, and received between 4,000 and 5,000 messages on his Blackberry.
The 23-year-old was able to celebrate his success with a quiet dinner with his mother and sisters but it was no wild party.
Phelps ordered a cheeseburger and did not drink a single drop of champagne or any other alcohol. “That’s all I wanted to do, to be with my mom and my sisters and see some of my friends who came over here to support me,” he said.
“I just wanted to relax and have fun and sit around and not do anything.”
The next day, Phelps was straight back into action, not in the pool but being shuffled around Beijing by his minders.
He spent an hour addressing journalists at a news conference organized by one of his main sponsors Visa then another hour doing exclusive interviews with selected media organizations at a 120-year-old Chinese palace.
“I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, I’m just along for the ride,” he told Reuters.
Although he would be the obvious candidate to carry the U.S. flag at next Sunday’s closing ceremony, Phelps revealed that he was leaving Beijing early to be in London, the host city for the next Olympics in 2012, for the official handover.
There will be plenty more international business in store for Phelps over the next month but his busiest time will be when he returns to America.
He can expect a whistle-stop appearance on all of the major television stations and an even grander reception when he returns to his home town of Baltimore.
The Baltimore Ravens want to host a party for him at their NFL stadium and the school where his mother teaches have asked him to come along and speak to the students.
“I think it goes hand-in-hand with my goals of raising the bar in swimming,” he said.
Phelps pocketed a $1 million bonus from sponsors Speedo for breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds at Munich in 1972 but has no plans to splurge on any lavish gifts for himself.
He says the money and fame won’t change him, although there is one thing he hopes his profile might help him do.
“I’d like to meet Michael Jordan. What he did for basketball is what I’m trying to do for swimming. I have never met him, or Tiger Woods. I’d love to meet them both,” Phelps said.
Phelps admitted there were plenty of times when he wanted to quit swimming and play a sport with an easier training regime, but that’s no longer the case.
He wants to continue swimming at least until the London Olympics, spurning the temptation to retire and enjoy the highlife.
“I see myself as a normal person and the same kid I was four years ago,” he said. “I’ve been able to accomplish so much and have so many experiences that nobody will ever have at the age of 23.
“It doesn’t matter what I gave up as a kid. Everything I did give up I’m able to do whenever I want after I’m not swimming so I have no problems with sacrificing things.”
Editing by Jeremy Laurence
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