Forget Mark Spitz. At the Athens Olympics, Michael Phelps, 19, became the greatest swimmer in history. Sure, he fell short in his much-hyped quest for seven golds, but his eight-medal haul prompted NBC’s Bob Costas to call Phelps not only the best swimmer but perhaps the greatest Olympian of all time. In any sport. He wasn’t kidding.
It’s been four months since Athens. Has it sunk in?
It has now. Over there it hadn’t. I look back on it, and it’s just crazy how you train four years for one week of swimming. That’s it. And you get home and you walk places and you see people doing double takes or jaw drops or bulging eyes.
Is there one moment you’ll remember most?
There’s two: There’s never going to be a feeling like that first gold medal. Looking up in the stands and seeing my mom, my sisters, everybody going crazy. The second one – the 800 freestyle relay. It definitely means more as a team.
How do you get ready for those moments?
One of the biggest things for me has been my music. It’s how I separate myself in front of everybody, make myself my own world and just focus on what I’m there to do.
You always have the headphones on pre-race. What are you listening to?
Well, it’s always rap. Eminem, Biggie, G Unit. Any of those guys. One of Eminem’s that I always listened to was “Till I Collapse.” This summer, that was the one.
What’s it like to be back home? I hear there’s been no shortage of girls offering their numbers.
It’s kind of strange. People will be holding up signs with numbers, asking, “Do you wanna hang out?”
Take anyone up on it?
None. You can’t go off with these random chicks who just walk up and give you their number!
Kind of the rock-star treatment.
Yeah, in a way, but not as hyped. I’m sure their lives are crazier, weirder than ours.
Speaking of rock-star behavior, you received a DUI last month.
[Long pause] It’s going to be something I learn from, because I made a mistake. Hopefully I can pass that along to other people, younger people especially, to prevent them from making the same mistake.
In the world of “athletes behaving badly,” this hardly rates. Are Olympians kept to a higher standard?
Well, Olympians are only seen once every four years. So I think it’s harder for us. You see NBA players every year for fifteen, twenty years. Other than that, I really don’t think there’s anything different about it.
This story is from the December 30th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.