Commentary

Phelps still draws crowd in return

Updated: May 15, 2009, 11:11 PM ET
By Anna K. Clemmons | Special to ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like Tiger Woods' return to the golf course after his nine-month hiatus, Michael Phelps' dive back into the pool Friday nine months after the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a highly watched affair. For a meet that typically would be seen as a competitive practice, the Phelpsian presence brought media from around the world -- and sold more tickets than ever before in the history of the Charlotte UltraSwim.

In his first morning race, Phelps lined up for the 200-meter freestyle as part of the 15th and last heat. Cameramen swarmed the space around Lane 4, crowding the path between the starting block and the adjacent seats. "Michael asked me, 'Are there really five cameras on me at the Charlotte UltraSwim?'" coach Bob Bowman said with a laugh after Friday's preliminary rounds.

Olympic medalists Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol competed two heats earlier, yet the sold-out crowd was quiet, making the UltraSwim inside the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center feel more like a crowded high school meet.

But as Phelps approached the block, the cheers began. The 23-year-old looked calm and laughed on the blocks, which he later explained as the realization that he had ripped a small hole in his suit that he worried might expand. As he approached the final 25 meters, the PA announcer called out, "Charlotte, if you're here, make some noise!" and the crowd responded with loud cheers.

The Phelps autograph line far exceeded any other swimmer's, and he was the only competitor with a bodyguard accompanying him at times. After his swims in the free and the 100 butterfly, both top-three finishes that placed him in the evening's finals, Phelps joked about his auspicious clothing before saying, "I'm happy to be back, happy to be racing again and to be in my first final tonight since Beijing. We'll see how it goes."

International media from the United Kingdom, China, France and elsewhere filled the interview room. "I didn't see this many cameras in Beijing," Phelps remarked, smiling, after his final swim of the evening. He also talked of feeling more pressure, perhaps a combination of the increased media presence here as well as within his personal life of late.

This is life now for the post-Beijing Phelps. Four and a half years ago, he left Athens with six gold medals, two bronze medals and less fanfare. He moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., busying himself with assistant coaching and with his own workouts under the watchful tutelage of Bowman.

That November, Phelps endured his first blip on the public-persona radar. The then 19-year-old was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Phelps pleaded guilty and was ordered to serve 18 months of probation, pay a small fine and speak to high school students about drinking and driving. At a later appearance on "Today," Phelps told host Matt Lauer: "I think I let a lot of people in the country down."

Fast-forward to nine months ago, when Phelps departed Beijing with a record eight gold medals. The increase in hardware not only cemented his status as the greatest Olympian of all time but also thrust him further into the spotlight. Numerous magazine covers, news stories and even commercials were Phelps-focused. Michael-mania had ensued, and the past sin, it seemed, was forgotten.

Blazing through Beijing with those eight golds, Phelps solidified his spot alongside Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Woods as one of the greatest athletes of all time. And fans wanted to track his every move.

In January, photos surfaced of Phelps holding a marijuana bong. Although he wasn't directly violating a competition rule, USA Swimming enforced a three-month suspension based on circumstantial evidence. Phelps contemplated retirement before deciding he had more battles left.

And in true Phelpsian fashion, he surprised and mesmerized once again Friday at the Charlotte UltraSwim.

Fans crammed into the bleachers for the evening finals, lingering near the velvet ropes that prohibited them from the swimmers' paths. Unlike morning sessions, the night performances paraded the swimmers the length of the pool. Music blasted as the crowd cheered, a current of energy resonating through the building. The crowd's yells were surprisingly equal for Phelps, Peirsol and Peter Vanderkaay (the bulk of the "young girl at a pop concert" squeals were reserved for Lochte).

Phelps crouched, head down, swinging his arms wide and across his body before wiggling spirit fingers seconds before the whistle. The race was fairly even in the first 100, but the second 100 turned into a race between Phelps and Vanderkaay. Phelps threw out a new straight-arm stroke for the last 15-20 meters, beating Vanderkaay to the wall. The crowd erupted, and camera flashes ensued. Phelps set a meet record of 1:46.02. This performance after he hadn't competed in nine months.

On the medal block, he received more applause. His fellow swimmers didn't display any frustration toward him; instead, they seemed respectful of his performances. When asked what Phelps did that afternoon between races, Bowman said he grabbed lunch at Subway and took a nap. Another reporter asked whether this performance was on track for a 2012 run. "This is ahead of schedule," Bowman said.

After the 100 butterfly race (another win, another meet record), a reporter called out the first question as Phelps walked toward the interview area: "Are you Superman?" Phelps grinned before replying "Uhhh, no."

But did the incidents of the past months cloud the nation's view of swimming's superhero? Charlotte resident Kevin Patton, whose two sons are collegiate swimmers, said no. "I don't think it's made a big difference in the swimming world at all. My son Matthew swam with him at Michigan, and he didn't think it had anything to do with swimming. He's an amazing athlete."

Rafael Medina, whose adolescent son took a picture with Phelps and got his autograph, agreed. "Whatever he does in his personal life, we don't care," Medina said. "He is the type of person you can admire. His lifestyle, it doesn't matter."

But 15-year-old Stephanie Koors, a year-round swimmer, didn't necessarily agree. "I think it has changed things," Koors said. "I'm not going to say he's not as good of an athlete, but I think that doesn't make him as much of a role model. People are still excited, but I think some people are definitely upset."

For his part, Phelps appeared excited to be swimming again and refreshed by his break. "I'm really happy with today," Phelps said afterward.

And with that, he has returned.

Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and contributes to ESPN.com.

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