Michael Phelps' Post-Olympics Year: Bad Boy or Bad Luck?

How is Michael Phelps doing a year after his record-breaking Olympics?

ByMonica Nista
August 18, 2009, 2:07 PM

Aug. 21, 2009— -- It's been a year and five days since Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the Water Cube at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, breaking Mark Spitz's previous record of seven golds and winning millions of dollars in endorsements in the meantime.

But while Phelps may have immeasurable talent mixed with a bit of luck in the pool, he has proven over the past year that he does not have much of that on land.

Just a few short weeks after winning five golds and one silver at the World Championships in Rome, the 24-year-old Maryland native got into a fender bender and was cited for driving with an expired and out-of-state license.

While police ruled the accident was not Phelps' fault -- the woman he hit ran a red light -- Phelps admitted he drank a beer roughly an hour before getting in the car.

He suffered a minor ankle injury, but wrote on his Facebook page it was nothing to worry about: "I am fine and glad nobody was seriously hurt."

This isn't the first time Phelps has had trouble behind the wheel. In November 2004, following his success at the Athens Olympics, where he won six gold and two bronze medals, Phelps, 19 at the time, was arrested for driving under the influence.

He pleaded guilty and was ordered to serve 18 months' probation. Phelps was also fined $250, and ordered to speak to high school students about drinking and driving, and to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) meeting.

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show, Phelps said it was an "isolated incident" and that he had "definitely let myself down and my family down ... I think I let a lot of people in the country down."

Like a bad case of deja-vu, Phelps found trouble once again following the 2008 Olympics.

Phelps Can't Seem to Stay Out of Trouble

On Jan. 2, the British tabloid News of the World ran a photo of Phelps that had the world aghast with the headline: "What a Dope." The uber-athlete was shown front and center inhaling from a massive bong. Some were horrified, while others argued it made Phelps a sort of real-life hero who not only swims for gold but eats, drinks and parties just like them.

"It was bad and stupid judgment," Phelps told the cameras minutes before a workout at his childhood pool in Baltimore. "And something I'll always live with."

USA Swimming suspended Phelps from competing for three months, and Kellogg cut its endorsement ties with Phelps.

"Like most Americans, and like Michael Phelps himself, we were disappointed in his behavior," Kellogg wrote in a statement.

If Phelps were a Hollywood movie star, his publicist would have been fired by now. But is his behavior that much different from the rest of the male population his age?

According to a 2005 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, 55.8 percent of males aged 18 to 25 have smoked marijuana within their lifetime, 32.9 percent within the past year and 21.1 within the past month.

These statistics do not excuse Phelps' behavior, but they do show he's acting like a typical 24-year-old and one who didn't get to see the lights of a party for eight years.

Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic gold medalist and analyst for television networks ESPN and NBC, told ABCNews.com, "You have to remember this kid -- from 2000 until 2008 he missed about seven total days of swimming practice. He trained -- he lived, breathed and ate swimming for eight years. And all of a sudden he took six months off. That's a huge jump from one type of a lifestyle."

"I don't think he did anything different from any normal kid of this day and age," Gaines added. "I'm not condoning what he did along the way and the mistakes he made, but I'm not living in his shoes and his transgressions were way overblown."

Following the bong incident, Phelps' coach Bob Bowman told The New York Times that while he was furious, we have to ease up on his athlete. "Just because you make a lot of money, that doesn't require you to be perfect 24 hours a day. That doesn't automatically make you a superhero," Bowman said.

James Barone, a former teammate of Phelps' and one who's spent time coaching him from the sidelines, said Phelps gets a raw deal from the media.

"Phelps is just doing what happens to everybody else in the world, but every time he slips up the media is going to crucify him," Barone told ABCNews.com.

Phelps: Bad Boy or Just Bad Luck?

Some Phelps fans on Twitter responded to his crash last weekend and they all shared the same theme:

"Who cares?"

"It's only news because of who he is!"

"The Phelps incident is not news. Though, Phelps is an idiot for driving w/ suspended license. Pay your fines, dude!"

Gaines says besides being a typical "immature" 24-year-old, part of Phelps' struggle has been going from a virtual nobody to an instant celebrity with his eighth gold medal in Beijing.

"The problem with Michael is, he went from being a very small fish in a very large pond, so to speak, into going into a very small fishbowl," said Gaines. "He went from being a swimmer to being a celebrity... That's a lot to handle."

"They write about him on TMZ. They write about celebrities, they don't write about swimmers," Gaines added. "If he'd won seven golds and one silver, nobody'd be writing about him. He's perfect -- that moved him into one whole different stratosphere of what to write about."

Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, said Phelps and his agents decided to make him into a role model and maybe he just wasn't ready for that.

"They definitely made a conscious effort to put him out there as a role model in swimming -- get kids involved in the sport and make the sport of swimming so much bigger," Brennan told ABCNews.com.

"They should have let him be a 23-year-old and a 23-year-old who wanted to party," said Brennan.

"They made a choice to try and have it both ways -- make Michael into the all-American role model but also for Michael to party and do all the fun things that Michael wanted to do," Brennan added. "My suggestion would have been to let him be a 23-year-old to go to the frat parties and to not set him up as the all-American pitchman."

Phelps: Bad Boy or Just Bad Luck?

Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, agreed that some athletes tend to act out after a victory -- sometimes to the detriment of their public image.

"It's pretty common human behavior to go out and celebrate after a major success," Binks said. "Unfortunately, athletes are put in the limelight and expected to be role models."

Barone emphasized that Phelps, who turned 24 in June, is out there being a role model, but the media tends to harp on the negative.

"They never report about the good stuff he does," Barone said. "He volunteers at the Special Olympics, he spends time with kids with cancer, he does stuff like that. But nobody wants to read about it. The media thinks that people only want to see when people slip up. I bet people would love to find out that he's a nice guy," he added.

Upon tying Spitz' record of seven gold medals in Beijing, Phelps received $1 million from Speedo, and he put it straight toward his charity, the Michael Phelps Foundation. The foundation promotes healthy lifestyles for children by expanding opportunities for participation in swimming.

Gaines said the next 18 months will be crucial in Phelps' training. Coach Bowman splits the three years until the 2012 Olympics in London into two 18-month periods. For the first 18 months, Phelps will be focused on training, with few crucial competitions. He will spend the next 18 months, leading up to London, on the international meet circuit.

Gaines just wants Phelps to keep doing what he's doing because he's had a tremendous impact on the sport.

"Whatever makes him happy. I want him to be happy because I want him to be around," said Gaines. "Just like golf desperately needs Tiger, we need Michael. It's a trickle-down effect. He helps the ratings, helps the crowds... I'm hoping he sticks around to 2016. I hope he just keeps swimming."

Phelps fans say if the NFL can forgive Michael Vick for electrocuting and torturing dogs for money, we should be able to forgive a couple of Phelps' nights, although clumsy, out on the town.

"It's not like he's out there dealing drugs... you look at some of these professional athletes and put it in comparison, you're comparing apples and oranges," said Gaines.

Brennan said it's tough for athletes and, specifically, Olympians because we hold them up on pedestals. "The word 'Olympics' takes people's breaths away."

Dan Childs contributed to this report.

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