MIGHTY MICHAEL

When Michael Phelps was 16, he struck a deal with his mother. An endorsement contract with Speedo had made him a good bit wealthier than the average Baltimore teenager, and Debbie Phelps wanted to instill a sense of fiscal prudence in her son. The young swimmer had just bought himself a gray 2000 Cadillac Escalade SUV--used, not new--and now he wanted to trick it up in the style of the hip-hop M.C.s he idolized. Debbie didn't object, but she had terms: for every world record

Michael broke, he could add one outrageously unnecessary accouterment to his car. It seemed like a smart bargain. After all, it's hard to break world records. Isn't it?

In three years, the car has become a thumping, blinging, eight-cylinder monument to Phelps's dominance in the water. On a chilly March morning, he is driving to breakfast and trying to recall which toy was purchased on the heels of which record. It's tough keeping all 11 of them straight. "OK," he says, "the front TV"--the flat screen above the dash--"came from Santa Clara last summer. The two back TVs came from the World Championships last year in Spain." (Phelps actually broke five records in Spain, but he didn't want to overdo it.) "The spinners"--the 22-inch, silver tire rims that whirl like dreidels even after the car has stopped--"I got for Indianapolis." And the Xbox under the rear seat? The 15-inch subwoofers? The touch-screen-activated DVD player? He's drawing a blank. Anyway, he says, the deal's off. It was a nice idea, but how could Debbie have predicted that her son, a kid who was afraid to put his face in the water as a 6-year-old, would become the world's greatest swimmer since Mark Spitz?

In the three decades since Spitz won seven gold medals--four individual, three relays--at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, no swimmer has even attempted to match the feat. Next week in Athens, Phelps will try for eight. If he sweeps all of his events, he will have pulled off the greatest feat in Olympic history. Period. Even matching Spitz, which would earn Phelps a $1 million bonus from Speedo, would top the list because of today's more rigorous competition and the additional round now required to win some individual golds. Is Phelps likely to pull it off? No. NEWSWEEK's call: he'll come up just short and head home with a still-dizzying six golds. He and his U.S. teammates will drop the 4x200-meter relay to the powerful Australians--but he'll pull an upset in one of the two individual events (out of a record five) in which he's not favored. He'll either win the 100m butterfly over American teammate Ian Crocker or he'll beat 2000 triple-gold---medalist Aussie Ian Thorpe in the week's marquee showdown, the 200m freestyle. (Aug. 16, 7:43 p.m. Athens time. Mark it on your calendar.)

Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman insist that matching Spitz is a goal that has been thrust upon them by the media (OK, and Speedo) and that their goal is simply to come home with at least one gold medal. It's not entirely spin. If Spitz were their priority, Phelps could surely maximize his strength by dropping an event. But what fun would that be? "At some point this has got to be about more than gold medals," says Bowman. "At some point, it's got to be about trying it, pushing the limits of what can be done." It is also, of course, about money. And even Phelps's agent, Peter Carlisle of the Octagon Group, admits that his client needs a strong showing, though not necessarily a Spitzian one, to keep the riches coming. "If Michael wins one gold, he'll be satisfied. But I don't think the American public will be," Carlisle says. "He's a big name, a huge talent. The world wants to see him perform."

There's little chance he won't. Phelps will head to Athens as a top U.S. qualifier in three different disciplines: individual medley, butterfly and freestyle. Such versatility is unheard of in an era when kids begin specializing at the age of 12. Then again, Phelps has never been like the other kids. The 19-year-old is a willowy 6 feet 4, "but his legs, compared to his torso, are short," says Bowman. "That's a good swimming attribute because your body rides like a boat on the water. The longer the hull, the faster it goes." Then there are his freak-of-nature traits, such as his elbows, which hyperextend a good 10 degrees past level, and his serpentine toes, which are, in a word, gross.

Mentally, phelps is hard-wired for greatness. Like most transcendent athletes, he has a relentless appetite for training--he swims even on Christmas Day--and a preternatural calm. But greatness isn't enough for him. He wants to be the Tiger Woods of swimming, a brand name capable of lifting an entire sport. On that score, he may be ill suited for one simple reason: he's really nice. And in a cynical sports culture, nice is too often misinterpreted as boring. Phelps's tastes are pure hip-hop--he can quote "Chappelle's Show" and rapper Kanye West verbatim, and he rarely leaves home without his throwback Baltimore Orioles baseball cap. But his personality swings the opposite way. He laughs constantly. He is cocky but never provocative. Though he's still a relative novice in the international spotlight, Phelps has already mastered the fine art of bland, postrace athlete-speak. During a press conference last month following one victory at the Olympic trials, he served up this gem: "It's one step and I'm just taking it one step at a time, so hopefully we'll be able to take that next step." Minutes later a reporter asked Bowman if his prodigy had a curfew for the week. "He won't need one," the coach replied, sounding almost disappointed.

Phelps is more engaging back home in Baltimore--especially when he can talk about something other than swimming, a subject he clearly doesn't like to overthink. Whenever journalists come calling, he takes them to his favorite breakfast spot, Pete's Diner, so they can watch him inhale bewildering amounts of food. During the trials, NBC even aired a clever, but woefully incomplete, graphic of his breakfast menu. It correctly noted the two egg-and-cheese sandwiches, the bowl of grits, the large omelet and the tall stack of pancakes, but failed to mention the truckload of butter and sugar he pours into the grits--and that those pancakes are chocolate-chip pancakes. "You can only get ' em on Sunday," Phelps says as his buddy Lou, a cook at the diner, serves up a stack. "But Lou says he'll make them whenever I want." (It's a Monday.) "I call them 'prima donna cakes'," says Lou, "because the prima donna's gotta get his chocolate chips." At the counter, Phelps convulses with laughter. It's clear he comes here for the smack talk as much as for the food. After he delivers a short soliloquy about how much he adores and respects his mother, who divorced his father when he was 9 and raised him and his two older sisters largely by herself, another cook, Kelly, applauds. "Aw," she says, "thanks for sharing." He roars again.

The food is fuel for the nearly 50 miles that Bowman has him swim each week. Eight years ago the coach was hired by Phelps's local club, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and he spotted the future star instantly. When Michael was 12, Bowman sat his parents down and explained to them that their son was a very unusual boy. Then he walked them through the next 15 years of Michael's life: the 2000 Olympic trials, the 2004 Olympics... "By the time he got to 2012, I thought the man was crazy," Debbie recalls. In retrospect, he was--crazy, that is, to think it would happen so slowly. At the 2000 spring nationals, Phelps smashed an age-group record in the 200m fly by five seconds. "That," Bowman says, "was the breakout moment, when he went from being a kid who might be pretty good to 'whoa.' It was a quantum leap." Six months later, Phelps swam at the Sydney Games as a 15-year-old. A year after that, he was the most feared swimmer in the country.

After the Athens Games, Phelps will join Bowman at the University of Michigan, where the coach will take over the men's swimming team this fall. The two have become uncommonly close; Phelps says Bowman, 39, is "like a big brother," which might explain why their relationship seems rooted in loving antagonism. "He knows exactly how to push my buttons," Bowman says, "and I can do the same to him. If I really want to get to Michael"--he pauses and smiles malevolently--"there's any number of ways. I can't reveal all my secrets in your magazine. But just for example, if I really want a reaction out of him, I'll just say, 'Well, it's obvious you don't really wanna do this. Why don't you just get out of here?' He'll absolutely pitch a fit."

At an afternoon practice this spring, though, it's the kid who seems to have the upper hand. Laps begin at precisely 3:45 p.m., and as the minute arrives, Phelps's 16 club teammates all hit the water. Phelps, meanwhile, lingers on the deck, lazily peeling off his tracksuit. Yards away, Bowman sits in a plastic chair and simmers. "After this little daily moment of insubordination, he'll remember he needs me," he mutters to --a reporter. At 3:47, Phelps finally dives in and tears through his regimen. On the way home in his Escalade, he's asked if he ever misbehaves just to torment his coach. "Oh, definitely," he says, beaming. "Notice today how I was the last one in the pool? He hates that. Absolutely hates that."

Two months later the pair is in Miami to shoot a Visa commercial that will air throughout the summer. The Visa deal is among the largest of six major endorsement contracts that will reportedly earn Michael a seven-figure annual salary through 2009. Such is the price tag for a can't-miss superstar who will be just 27 at the 2012 Olympics. In the ad's clever conceit, Phelps trains by swimming ocean laps between Athens and New York City. During a pause in shooting, he sucks down a Capri Sun juice pack and, like millions of teenage boys before him, tries to pop the empty container with his foot. The first try is a flop. "Well, that sucked," he grumbles. On the second try, he manages only to splatter a crew member's leg with juice. "Oops. Sorry." With each successive try, Phelps's frustration mounts. But wouldn't you know it? On the seventh try, the container blasts open with a satisfying pop. The crew applauds. Phelps grins and then goes back to work.

MIGHTY MICHAEL | News