Is he swimming's Mary Lou?

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- He already has appeared in several nationally televised advertising campaigns, and on magazine covers, and his likeness adorns an Olympic-themed Visa credit card.

America's teen swimming phenom, Michael Phelps, drives a hip, luxury SUV, and in the near future will likely have multiple transportation options in the garage as his endorsement income soars into the millions. Next week, he'll be introduced by supermodel Cindy Crawford when he joins her and other current "ambassadors" who appear in ads for Omega watches.

Yet what has really jolted the happy-go-lucky Phelps' attention in recent months as he awaited this week's U.S. Olympic swimming trials has been the simple experience of being recognized by strangers in his own country.

"I went downtown the other day," said Phelps, who is considered the first American swimmer since Matt Biondi in 1988 capable of flirting with the goal of matching or surpassing the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz 32 years ago. "A random guy just said, 'Good luck.' "

At a Starbuck's, someone asked him, "Are you who you look like?" Phelps' reply: "I don't know. Who do I look like?"

It is a moment any number of U.S. athletes has encountered during the hype before or immediately after the Olympic Games. But the landscape of American sports fanaticism rarely accommodates these media darlings for long. Eventually, they come and go in Starbuck's without hearing so much as a whisper.

Before he set a world record of 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds in Wednesday's 400 individual medley final to qualify for his first Athens spot, Phelps this week talked about his motivation for putting himself in the middle of this short-term frenzy, where every element of being Michael is suddenly relevant. A measure of fame is nice, he acknowledges. Tying Spitz would be cool, though he has never expressed deep-rooted admiration for the seven-gold standard. Money paid out in six-figure sums is never discussed as the lure, but everyone knows it's out there.

But what Phelps said he really wants to do is "change the sport forever" by raising awareness and making American swimmers more top of mind even when an Olympic countdown is not at hand, and by making it a sport of choice for more skinny kids from places like Baltimore, where Phelps lives.

If Phelps, 19, is serious about making an indelible mark, he has an ally in fellow swimmer and Olympic champion Gary Hall Jr., who competed at the Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.

Why does Spitz acknowledge -- as he did in a rare press conference this week -- that both of his kids, including a 12-year-old son, love sports but have zero interest in swimming despite their bloodlines? Why is Biondi, an incredible talent who won five gold medals, plus a silver and bronze, in 1988 in Seoul, today a nearly forgotten man teaching school in Hawaii?

It is the obscurity curse that befalls almost every American Olympian. It is acute in swimming, Hall said, because rivalries are not permitted to build over time and swimming events are not properly tailored to be recurring television properties.

Hall, 29, an iconoclast who formed a venture called The Race Club to attract veteran swimmers who want to train with peers, and to develop marketing strategies for the sport, is not even sure Phelps is guaranteed to make a huge difference.

"I think Michael Phelps overall is great for the sport of swimming," Hall said. "He has drawn a lot of interest. But does he maintain that same amount of interest if he doesn't win seven gold medals?"

In other words, say he wins six gold, or five, in Athens next month. In 15 years, is Phelps merely a wealthier version of Biondi?

Even Spitz, whose revenue flow from his 1972 achievements has never completely tailed off, has not been a perpetually celebrated figure. Until Phelps mania started last year, Spitz's name seldom came up, not like other athletes of his time -- Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Wilt Chamberlain or fellow Olympian Peggy Fleming.

This year has been "a rebirth in a lot of ways" for Spitz, his agent, Evan Morgenstein, said. "Every Olympics someone doesn't win seven gold medals, he gets bigger."

The current generation of American swimmers blame their relative obscurity on sports culture. They compare themselves to their Australian counterparts and feel positively invisible in contrast to an Olympic champion such as Ian Thorpe.

"You walk around over there [in Australia] and you are noticed on the street," Phelps said. "Let's say the U.S. swim team walks down the street in Long Beach, or Los Angeles, or New York. No one knows who we are."

Hall, with business partner and manager David Arluck, contends that The Race Club can change that by developing training centers for veteran, post-collegiate swimmers and packaging television events that offer more frequent showdowns among the world's reigning swimming stars.

"We will bring the sport to the people rather than trying to bring the people to the sport," Hall said. "Our core objective is to unite the swimmers of the sport."

There is USA Swimming, of course, but Hall says the sport's national governing body is essentially the equivalent of Pop Warner in football -- great for grass-roots development but not to be confused with the National Football League, or the NFLPA, for that matter.

Hall, who will try to qualify for his third Olympic team this week, said he has no corporate partner lined up yet to underwrite the grand plans of The Race Club, and he even acknowledges that the idea of developing a televised competition series may have to happen outside of the U.S., at first.

Such is the fleeting reality of Olympic fame in the U.S., where there are more entertainment options, and red-hot Gen-X/Gen-Y extreme sports, competing for public and media attention than ever.

Phelps might win seven gold medals to go with his seven-figure endorsement deals. He'll be NBC's poster for seven days in August. He will, indeed, qualify as a phenom no matter the medal count. But can he have the impact Mary Lou Retton did 20 years ago? She won gold in Los Angeles and the phones at gymnastics training centers were ringing coast to coast the next morning. That was a different time, of course.

Even Phelps, in an off-handed moment this week, seemed to imply that his quest for truly dramatic change might require an impossible effort.

"I could win 15 gold medals if I wanted to," Phelps said, mostly in jest.

If Phelps is to burrow into the American sports core for more than a few months in 2004, he just might have to.