Michael Phelps sneaked into Beijing almost unnoticed. He’s unlikely to go out that way.
The probable star of the Beijing Olympics avoided hundreds of fans, photographers and reporters Monday by taking a side door out to a waiting bus while his teammates pushed luggage trolleys through the arrival gate at Beijing’s new Terminal 3, a sprawling addition to the city’s airport.
Phelps, who’s grown a mustache while training in Singapore, eventually was spotted—in a window seat on the team bus—by dozens of reporters and photographers. He ignored most of the cameras, glancing in their direction a few times as he adjusted the fit of his baseball cap.
One young Chinese girl said she had waited five hours hoping to get an autograph. She also carried an envelope in her hand, addressed in imperfect English: “To Michael Phelps you have to look at.” Asked why she wanted to see Phelps, a friend standing nearby answered for her.
“Because she thinks he’s handsome.”
Phelps, who won six gold medals four years ago in Athens, is aiming to surpass Mark Spitz’s seven-gold effort at the 1972 Munich Games. Phelps will compete in eight events in Beijing, three of which are relays.
“I’m looking to do something different that the sport has never seen,” Phelps said a few days ago in Singapore.
At last year’s world championships in Australia, Phelps won seven events and was denied the chance for an eighth victory when a teammate was disqualified from the preliminaries of a relay the Americans were heavily favored to win.
Dara Torres, the 41-year-old self-described “old lady” of the U.S. team, was one of the few swimmers to speak in the rush to board the bus.
“It’s finally sunk in,” said Torres, who will compete in her fifth Olympics. “I am very excited to be here. I just want to get to the pool and start swimming a little bit.”