Commentary

Phelps' adoptive town stops (briefly) to watch history

Updated: August 17, 2008, 4:13 PM ET
By George Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Without question, this is a college football town. The University of Michigan has a new coach, and in two weeks Utah comes to town. That's what people are talking about.

But for the past eight days, swimming has been a prime topic of conversation as well, in particular the exploits in Beijing of Michael Phelps, who for the past four years has honed his considerable skills in Ann Arbor.

Saturday night, in bars and restaurants on campus and around town, patrons gathered in earnest in front of TV screens large and small to see whether Ann Arbor's adopted son would win his record-breaking eighth gold medal of these Summer Olympics.

Mike Turriff, a beer salesman joined by friends at The Arena sports bar, is like many of Phelps' Summer '08 fans in that swimming is not a sport he normally follows.

"I've been up every night watching him swim, and I'm exhausted," he said shortly before the start of the 400-meter medley relay. "I'm normally in bed by 9 p.m."

Phelps' ties to Ann Arbor began after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won six gold medals. His coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman, became coach at Michigan, and Phelps followed him here. He enrolled at school but could not swim for the university because his many endorsement deals negated his amateur status. Rather, he joined Club Wolverine, an elite postgraduate swim team also coached by Bowman, and began preparing for Beijing.

Despite Phelps' fame, he was not nearly as recognizable as many of Michigan's football players, which apparently suited him just fine. Outside of his close friends and teammates, employees at Phelps' favorite eateries got to know him best because his prodigious workouts resulted in a prodigious appetite.

Norm Peterson, nom de plume of the host at Casey's Tavern on Depot Street, recalled that Phelps first turned up there when he was 20 and remained a regular. He often ordered two of the half-pound hamburgers but otherwise acted no differently than any other customer.

"He's a real nice guy," said Mary Motto, who often served Phelps his burgers. "He was friendly, but really timid. He fit right in."

[+] EnlargeAnn Arbor
George TanberCustomers at The Arena, a sports bar in downtown Ann Arbor, gathered around TVs as the 4x100 medley relay got under way.

Over time, Peterson asked Phelps for several autographs, including a picture of the swimmer in action. Phelps gladly complied. Up until last week, the photograph had hung on a wall inside a Casey's booth. But as Phelps' gold medals multiplied, Peterson worried someone would swipe the photo, so it has been shelved temporarily.

"We'll put it back when we can bolt it down," he explained.

Although business was brisk at Casey's on Saturday night, customers had to go elsewhere to watch Phelps swim because the restaurant closed at 11 p.m.

With fall classes more than two weeks away, it was quiet on campus and the surrounding commercial district. But several blocks west, in the city's downtown area, many of the restaurants and bars were filled, and the streets were crowded with browsers enjoying a spectacular, moonlit evening.

This was Phelps' neighborhood -- before he announced he was returning to his native Baltimore area, where Bowman also will return to direct the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He lived in an eight-story condo building called The Ashley Mews on South Main Street and frequented a number of nearby eateries, among them the Prickly Pear Southwest Cafe. During a conversation with David Lyon, a server who often waited on Phelps, the topic quickly turned, as usual, to his large appetite and favorite food.

"Buffalo meat enchiladas, usually two entrées, and a couple of appetizers," he said, also noting he was impressed with what he described as an atypical jock attitude in Phelps.

Yet despite Phelps' fame and his Ann Arbor ties, no signs of support or recognition of his celebrity were visible in his downtown neighborhood.

Michael DiRamio, an Ann Arbor resident who had joined Turriff at The Arena, said he was not surprised.

"I didn't even know he lived here until this week," he said.

DiRamio's explanation: "The sports they focus on in the Olympics are not sports we normally watch."

This attitude mystified Pat McConville, an Ann Arbor-based scientist and Australia native who had brought his friends, Turriff and DiRamio, from the Arbor Brewing Co. to The Arena to watch the race. Swimming is a major sport in Australia, he said, and its stars are revered on a level with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. If Phelps was an Australian going for an eighth gold medal, he said, giant TV screens would be set up in downtown plazas of every major city. If he won, Sydney would stage a ticker-tape parade the likes of which few would ever have seen.

When the Games began, McConville was not a Phelps supporter. But with each victory, McConville became more impressed -- and thrilled he lived in the same town the swimmer had trained.

Still, as race time approached, McConville could not help but note the irony that the team that stood between Phelps and his record medal was none other than his beloved Aussies.

[+] EnlargeAnn Arbor
George TanberRick Steigelman, manager, and Norm Peterson, host, at Casey's Tavern removed an autographed picture of Michael Phelps for fear it would be stolen.

His perfect solution? "Australia wins the gold, and Phelps remains tied with Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals."

When the race finally started, about 15 minutes late, The Arena crowd, previously distracted by other activities, moved closer to the TV monitors and finally got noisy. During the relay's first two segments, when the Americans trailed, they nervously pleaded for the swimmers to go faster. When Phelps, swimming third, seized the lead, their shouting turned to confident cheers. When Jason Lezak held the advantage Phelps had given him to secure the gold, there was a lot of backslapping and knuckle-bumping.

But as suddenly as it began, it was over, and most of the customers returned to what they had been doing before, as if nothing significant had happened.

Not DiRamio. He watched Phelps being interviewed and felt for his teammates, whom he believed were unfairly being ignored.

"It's all about him," he said. "Don't get me wrong, he's an amazing guy. That's just the American way."

McConville was upset the Australians lost but was impressed with their performance. Phelps, he said, was the difference. "My hat's off to him."

So Phelps will return to Baltimore, and his Ann Arbor days will become a footnote in his life story. Here, they will remember an extraordinary athlete who was a regular guy with the appetite of Paul Bunyan.

But not for too long. There are football games to be played and a new coach whose legacy has yet to be determined.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.