Even Phelps doesn't phall for nicknames

September 13, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

A GUILTY CONSCIENCE is a terrible burden to carry, and mine was starting to feel like a pair of cinderblocks tied around my waist.

Maybe you were too hard on the readers, a little voice kept saying.

You write a column lamenting the fact that Michael Phelps doesn't have a cool nickname. You invite the readers to send in their suggestions. Then you rip them for being lame!

Is that any way to treat people?

Boy, was I feeling low.

So when Baltimore's young Olympic hero made a triumphant return home this past weekend, I vowed to track him down.

I promised myself I wouldn't rest until I could stand face-to-face with the winner of six gold medals at the Athens Games and get his reaction to some of the nicknames sent in by Sun readers last week.

And if young Mr. Phelps liked any of the nicknames, I would throw myself on the ground -- figuratively speaking, of course -- and beg the forgiveness of my readers.

Not only that, but, as a further apology, I would then take every reader out to dinner.

And we're not talking Burger King here. No, we're talking Prime Rib, Tio Pepe's, Oregon Grille, wherever the reader wanted to go. Because that's always been the motto of this space: When I screw up, you go first class.

OK, fine.

So the other day, I finally catch up with the great Michael Phelps at the Loyola College pool, where he's putting on some kind of swimming clinic for schoolkids in conjunction with this Disney "Swim With the Stars" tour he's doing with fellow gold medalists Lenny Krayzelburg and Ian Crocker.

The place is crawling with media, but I manage to get him alone -- well, if you don't count the 60 other TV, radio, print and Web reporters crammed in around us.

Briefly, I fill him in: Look, you need a cool nickname like that Ian Thorpe guy from Australia, the "Thorpedo." We asked the Sun's readers for suggestions, more than 400 submissions rolled in, they came from as far away as Malaysia and the Philippines, blah, blah, blah.

"The top vote-getter was Phish," I said to him. "Spelled with a ph."

Nothing.

Silence.

The kind of silence you hear after the doctor says: "There's a spot on the X-ray that's troubling ..."

Beads of sweat start forming on my forehead.

"The, um, second top vote-getter was Phlash," I continue. "Also with a ph."

Again, nothing.

No change of expression.

More silence.

Now it's quieter than 4 in the morning.

At this point, I am ready to hurl myself into the pool, just to make the interview stop.

But I plow on.

(Look, I handle embarrassment on this job. I once interviewed former Orioles manager Earl Weaver while he sat naked on the desk in his office for 35 minutes. While chain-smoking Raleighs. If that didn't freak me out, this wasn't going to.)

Gamely, I read Michael Phelps the third-, fourth- and fifth-most-popular nicknames submitted by the readers: Flipper, Phlipper and The Fin.

More silence.

"Do any of those, er, do anything for you?" I ask.

Michael Phelps forces a smile.

"They make me excited," he says at last. "I'm ready to get back in the water."

End of interview -- at least on that subject.

So there you have it, dear readers.

On the surface, it looks like your humble columnist was wrong, doesn't it?

On the surface, it looks like Michael Phelps actually liked some of those nicknames.

But you know what? I don't believe him at all.

I don't think any of those nicknames really excited him. You could see it in his face, hear it in his voice. He's a good kid and he was just trying to be polite.

I don't think any of those nicknames made him want to get back in the water, either.

If anything, they probably made him want to throw me in the water.

So I'm not ready to grovel in this space just yet. And as for picking up the dinner tab for you people, well, you can forget that, too.

(My God, it would have cost me something like thirty grand! What is wrong with you people?! You think money grows on trees?!)

So -- at least in this space -- the search for a killer nickname for Michael Phelps goes on.

Apparently, it goes on within Michael Phelps' inner circle, too.

Lenny Krayzelburg, who has swum with Phelps for years, said his U.S. Olympic teammates were never able to come up with a good nickname for the kid from Rodgers Forge.

And when I read the list of nicknames from Sun readers to Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother, she listened politely, but did not exactly light up.

"Do they knock me over?" she said. "No. I haven't had that yet with a nickname."

As I left the Loyola pool, I ran into Sun sportswriter Paul McMullen, who was just back from Athens and who has written about Michael Phelps more than any human being on the planet.

"Give me a nickname for Phelps," I said.

McMullen shook his head sadly.

"Nothing fits," he said. "We've tried everything. Everything is derivative."

Maybe I'll take McMullen to dinner.

Some place cheap, though. I'm not made out of money.

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