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Monday, August 18, 2008

Phelps Wants to Help Swimming Grow

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Michael Phelps after winning his eighth gold. He said he wanted to raise his sport’s profile.

BEIJING — His work here done, Michael Phelps spent a few minutes Sunday hitting the highlights.

Meeting the Spaniard Rafael Nadal at the athletes’ village was one. Phelps said he approached Nadal and introduced himself, explaining, “He’s probably one of my favorite tennis players to watch on TV.”


Phelps After His 8th GoldInteractive Feature

Phelps After His 8th Gold

After surpassing Mark Spitz as the most decorated athlete in a single Olympics, Phelps will probably require no further introductions. His successful pursuit of eight gold medals was the story of the first week of the Beijing Games.

From what Phelps has heard, the race that delivered his eighth medal — the 4x100-meter medley relay on Sunday morning — was shown at sports bars, neighborhood Olympic parties and the giant video screens at the stadium where Phelps’s hometown Baltimore Ravens were playing a preseason game.

Now comes the hard part.

The 23-year-old Phelps wants to keep people tuned into swimming, but how?

“I don’t want this sport to be an every-four-years sport,” said Phelps, who plans to compete through the 2012 Olympics in London. “In between the four years, there’s really not as much exposure as I’d like.”

Swimming is not like tennis, a sport in which a fan like Phelps can turn on his television on a lazy Sunday and see Nadal or Roger Federer hard at work. Swimming’s best athletes will not gather in one place again until next summer, at the world championship in Rome.

Members of the United States swim team, who have been cocooned for the past two weeks at the Olympic Village, have heard from people back home that children are signing up for lessons at the pools where they once trained. But will the enthusiasm generated by his performance last past Labor Day?

“My whole goal is to change the sport of swimming in a positive way,” Phelps said. He added: “I think it can go even farther. That’s where I hope to take it.”

After Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he retired so he could cash in on his success. Swimmers in those days could not accept money from sponsors and maintain their Olympic eligibility.

The walls of amateurism came crumbling down in the 1990s, allowing swimmers to remain in the sport longer. Jason Lezak, a teammate of Phelps’s on the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays, is 32, the vanguard of what another American, Brendan Hansen, described as “a new breed of swimmer.”

Hansen, 26, said he had no immediate plans to retire. Why would he bail out of the wave Phelps’s success is generating?

“Michael is the biggest thing that sport has ever seen,” Hansen said. “Not swimming, but sport in general. He just made the pressure putt to win the U.S. Open. He just won the Tour of France. He just knocked out Muhammad Ali. And he did it in one week.”

To take advantage of the excitement Phelps generated, swimming needs to be on television more, Hansen said. “But we’re fighting against basketball and baseball and football and hockey,” he said.

It would be hard to imagine any of the N.B.A. stars on the United States basketball team receiving a bigger red-carpet welcome than Phelps did Sunday when he showed up for a news conference at the main press center. Tens of lightning-buglike camera flashes heralded his arrival, giving Phelps one more image to commit to his memory of these Games.

“I don’t want to forget anything that happened,” he said.

The night before the medley relay, Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg, stopped by Phelps’s room in the athletes’ village. Phelps’s seven gold medals were hanging from the curtain rod.

“It looked like a freaking wind chime,” Hansen said.

They talked for a while, and Hansen promised that he would do his part to see that Phelps got his eighth gold. Whatever happens from here on out, he remembered telling Phelps, “You won’t have to ever prove yourself again.”

Now that he has passed Spitz, the next challenge for Phelps is making sure people do not forget about swimming.

“I just want people to get involved,” he said. “This sport has changed my life and allowed me to do so many things.”

Except, lately, sleep. Phelps’s first post-Games goal was not too ambitious.

“I want to lay in my own bed for five minutes, at least,” he said.