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Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Phelps enjoying ride as he leaves Beijing for London handoff

Associated Press

BEIJING -- Michael Phelps jetted off from his Olympics of a lifetime on Wednesday night, zooming into a future that includes newfound celebrity status, oodles of money and a possible redo four years from now at the London Games.

The swimmer who won a historic eight gold medals and set seven world records in Beijing was departing on an overnight flight to London, where he'll help in the handover of the Summer Games from China to the 2012 host city during Sunday's closing ceremonies. Then he's going to steal away on a vacation.

"I'm just taking everything step by step, enjoying the ride," Phelps told The Associated Press in an interview hours before leaving.

Since winning the last of his gold medals on Sunday, Phelps has been on a whirlwind of sponsor and TV appearances in Beijing, and he's enjoyed some of the city's nightlife. The exhaustion was evident in the 23-year-old champion's droopy eyes.

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"I really want to spend as much time with my friends and family as I can," he said. "It's coming up on two months on the road. I want to be able to see them and just relax."

Phelps' world changed dramatically during his 2½ weeks in Beijing. After one TV appearance, he was driven off in a golf cart and promptly got mobbed.

"It was scary," said his coach, Bob Bowman. "That's what will be the different thing for him."

But he's letting his playful side come out. Phelps was waiting to be introduced last at yet another sponsor's event Wednesday when he spied a spread of desserts on the bar. He ducked over, grabbed a chocolate cookie, and teasingly put his fingers to his lips to quiet the server.

Across town, Bowman was getting the star treatment at a cocktail party. The casually dressed coach was approached by a barrage of giggling women who put their arms around his waist and posed for pictures.

Bowman recalled sitting down to enjoy his first alcoholic drink with a colleague after Phelps' epic conquest of Mark Spitz's record ended Sunday. He raised his glass and said, "Well, my career's over, let's toast. All downhill from here."

Actually, the ride is only uphill for both men.

Phelps and Bowman plan to return to Ann Arbor, Mich., to collect the last of their belongings and be honored during Michigan's home football game against Wisconsin on Sept. 27.

Then they'll complete their moves back to Baltimore. Phelps will reside in a downtown condo, while Bowman builds a new home. They'll resume training at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where the duo first crossed paths when Phelps was a hyperactive 11-year-old.

Phelps plans to attend the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in late January.

"Hopefully the Ravens are there," he said of his hometown NFL team.

Shopping is in Phelps' future, too. After all, he's got a $1 million bonus from his swimsuit sponsor Speedo to burn. Tops on his list is a new car to replace his BMW.

"My friend's in the car business, so he's going to help me," Phelps said. "I've been looking at some Aston Martins and some Maseratis. It would be pretty sweet to get an old-school Aston Martin, some of the old-school [James] Bond ones. That would be sick."

Phelps famously hates to lose, whether it's in the pool or playing video games. Unfortunately, he's not as adept with the game controls as he is getting his hand on the wall first.

"I always lose," he said. "It kind of bugs me. I'm always getting rocked. I need to get my video game skills up, that's for sure."

Phelps' five-month hiatus ends in February, when he resumes serious training.

"I would rather it be three months, but I wanted it to be five so that it was probably longer than he wants and when he comes back, he's really ready to come back," Bowman said.

He won't be hovering while Phelps tests himself as a pop culture phenomenon, hopefully better than he did after Athens. A few months after the 2004 Games, he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.

"He's on his own now. He makes all the decisions outside the pool and I take care of the pool," the coach said. "In Athens, he had never had any personal freedom at all. Now he's had a lot and he's screwed it up, and he's learned what that means. He's done a pretty good job with it. I had my doubts in the beginning that we were going to get there, but now I think he's got it down."

Aussie Olympic great Ian Thorpe has noticed a change in Phelps, too.

"It sounds really cliched but it's true, he's really grown as a human being," Thorpe told the AP about his former rival. "That in itself is going to serve him well as he makes these decisions in the upcoming few months and few years."

Phelps' agent is sorting through a mountain of offers that could propel the 14-time gold medalist into a household name that lasts long past the Olympics.

"I don't see him being an actor," Bowman said. "I think he'll just want to be a celebrity, whatever that means. He'll just have to keep improving if he wants to do that. He handles himself so much better than he did. I was just amazed at some of the answers he gave to a lot of these questions this time."

Phelps can always ring Down Under and seek Thorpey's advice.

"I'm happy to help him out if he wants a hand with some of these things," the Aussie said.

Phelps' mother, Debbie, was a visible presence in Beijing, along with his two older sisters. Bowman said Phelps' father, Fred, didn't attend the Games, as he did in 2000 and 2004 when he stayed out of the spotlight and sat separately from his ex-wife and daughters. Phelps frequently praises his mother publicly for her devotion to him and his career, while never discussing his father.

Asked to describe their relationship, Bowman said, "I think it's just distant. I don't think it's good or bad. There's not much there."

Phelps will return to the international swimming stage at next summer's world championships in Rome, where Bowman said he'll focus on relays and shorter events, including the 100-meter freestyle and one of the backstroke events.

"It's like Michael said the other day, 'Debbie wants to go to Rome, I want to go to Rome, that's why we're going,' " the coach said. "It'll just be what it is. He could probably do without it."

Phelps plans to return for his fourth Olympics in 2012 and he's not ruling out swimming eight events again.

"I'm never, ever ruling it out," he said. "We just have to play it by ear and see how things go, but definitely start some new events and see where it takes us."

And hey, Michael Jordan, Phelps is still awaiting your phone call.

"I talk about him in every interview. I want to meet him," the golden guy said. "He's that one guy I really, really wanted to meet my whole life."