BALTIMORE – In the wake of Michael Phelps, America is getting ready for a swimming boom. Swim clubs and coaches across the nation say there's been a surge of interest since Phelps began collecting his eight gold medals.
Phelps has crossed over from world-class swimmer to superstar by winning more gold at a single Olympic Games than any other athlete, and his unprecedented feat is bound to make him a fortune in endorsements. Swim clubs expect they'll also benefit from his reflected glory, as kids and teenagers give the pool a try.
Many clubs take the last two weeks in August off, but at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps trained and will return this autumn, they've had nearly full morning practices both weeks, NBAC coach John Cadigan said.
"Before Michael Phelps, team sports dominated everything," 14-year-old Will Meadows said at Tuesday's workout. "He brings more people to swimming."
Fellow swimmer Maggie Brown agreed. "I have seen a lot of people challenging others to races since Michael has been doing so well," the 16-year-old lifeguard said.
Known around here as a kid who worked relentlessly to become a better swimmer the way another Michael — Jordan — pushed himself to become the dominant basketball player of his time, Phelps has showed that "things that were heretofore impossible, really are possible," Cadigan said.
Young people who might have thought before they could never get past their current swimming level are starting to aim higher, he said.
"Now they're suddenly starting to think, 'I can be like Mike,"' he said. "It is possible to get to a level that up to this point people thought was impossible."
Melinda Kennedy, the office manager for the Mission Viejo Nadadores, a swim club in Mission Viejo, California, that has produced several Olympians over the last 40 years, said interest was running high.
"I'm trying to get my work done today and the phone's ringing off the hook," she said on Monday.
USA Swimming typically sees a bump in membership with the Olympics — 5 percent after the 2000 Sydney games, 7.2 percent after the Athens Games.
This time, the group is hoping for an increase of as much as 10 percent over the next year, said Pat Hogan, managing director of club development. It currently has 340,000 members.
"We've just experienced the greatest media attention that we've ever experienced as a sport," he said. "I think that's going to help us."
In Westport, Connecticut, Ellen Johnston, head coach of the Water Rat Swim Team at the Westport Weston Family Y, estimated they have received 50 to 60 phone calls and e-mails from those interested in the team and swimming, twice the normal number. Many of the inquiries are from young children under 12, she said.
While the Olympics always raise the profile of the sport, "Michael Phelps has taken it to a whole new level," she said.
At Patterson Park Pool in Baltimore, Phelpsmania has even increased the number of recreational swimmers at the city-owned pool, according to Anthony Chang, who was teaching a learn-to-swim class on Tuesday.
Lori Mitchell of Baltimore has been bringing her daughters, 8-year-old Amber and 9-year-old April, to Chang's classes this summer.
"I wanted them to learn how to swim," she said. "I guess this is the year to do it."