A couple of weeks later Ebersol and his sons, Charlie and Teddy, were in a private plane that crashed shortly after takeoff in icy conditions. Fourteen-year-old Teddy was killed, along with two crew members. Ebersol broke his back. At Teddy's funeral in Connecticut, Ebersol was startled to see Phelps, who had flown in from Michigan. That was the beginning of a close friendship. "I'm not a crier," says Ebersol, "but every time he won a race in Beijing, I found myself weeping, because when I think of Michael, I think of my son."
The Olympics also had a powerful resonance for the Hansen family, who live in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium and first came in contact with Phelps in the fall of 2002. Stevie Hansen, then seven, was a promising age-group swimmer who was facing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Through Bowman the family asked if Stevie could meet his idol, and the day before the surgery Phelps went to the Hansens' house. He and Stevie shot hoops in the driveway and compared their favorite junk foods. After the operation, while Stevie was recovering in the hospital, Phelps sent balloons and a basket of deliciously unhealthy treats. The next summer Phelps surprised Stevie by showing up at one of his swim meets, and the boy raced across the pool deck to leap into his hero's arms. Phelps later borrowed a suit and swam the anchor leg in a parents-and-coaches relay.
Stevie would occasionally sit on the edge of the Meadowbrook pool watching Phelps practice, and Phelps kept tabs on the boy after he left for Ann Arbor. Stevie continued to swim even as his body was ravaged by more tumors. In April 2007 his health took a dramatic turn for the worse. Phelps rushed back to Maryland but because of a delayed flight didn't arrive at the Hansen home until after midnight. Stevie was so heavily medicated he couldn't be roused, but Phelps stayed for a couple of hours, talking softly to him while the boy slept. "Michael never let go of his hand the whole time," says Stevie's mom, Betsy. "To see this big, strong guy be so tender, it was just incredibly touching." Before he left, Phelps whispered to Stevie that he would win a medal for him in Beijing, and that he would try to make it a gold.
Stevie died a month later. Phelps went to the memorial service and provided a huge bouquet of flowers in purple, Stevie's favorite color.
As the Hansen family gathered in front of the TV for Phelps's first final in Beijing, the 400 individual medley, the promise from a year earlier was on everyone's mind. "That race was so emotional for us," says Betsy of sitting with her husband, Steve, and their 11-year-old daughter, Grace. "Watching Michael swim to the gold, I just cried and cried the whole time. I was so happy for him, but of course it was bittersweet that Stevie wasn't there to help us cheer for him."
Half a world away someone else also thought of Stevie immediately after the 400 IM. "I had promised him I'd win a medal," Phelps says, "and it meant a lot to me to do it for him."
Grace is a swimmer, too, and a good one. During a recent meet she set personal bests in six of her eight events. If Phelps's goal is to inspire the next generation of swimmers, Grace is proof that he's doing a pretty good job of it. "I got into swimming because of Stevie," she says. "Now I'm motivated to be the best I can be because of Michael."
THE RECENT Thanksgiving holiday was the first since 2004 that Phelps got to enjoy with his family, because while in Ann Arbor he was unwilling to interrupt his training to go home. "Last year was the worst," says Hilary. "We called and he had just gotten back from the pool and was eating takeout Chinese all by himself. It broke my heart."
Besides home cooking, Phelps says the best part of returning to Baltimore is having his mom and two older sisters close enough for spontaneous visits. Hilary, who is single, works for an environmental group in Washington; Whitney, who lives with her husband and two children in Rockville, Md., is a recruiter in finance and accounting. The Phelps clan has always been tight-knit and fiercely loyal, but Michael is leaning on them now more than ever, he says, because "they keep things normal."
Since the Olympics his life has been a blur of nonstop business meetings, corporate engagements and media appearances, highlighted by hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live on Sept. 13 and being a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards that same month. Although he is not a natural in front of the camera, Phelps feels he can't say no to too many opportunities. "I do feel an obligation to promote the sport," he says. "It's not even about me. I just think it's cool that a swimmer—any swimmer—is hosting SNL."