Phelps broke Mark Spitz’s iconic record with eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in August and became the winningest Olympian ever with his 14 career victories. Olympians in other sports have earned the award before in its 54-year history, but never a swimmer. In 1972, the year Spitz won his medals, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and tennis great Billie Jean King were honored by the magazine.
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“Honestly, I feel like the same person I’ve been my whole life,” Phelps told The Associated Press at a recent photo session where he posed for the Sports Illustrated cover. “I’m doing what I love. I was able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish this year. It’s been a dream come true of a year, and I definitely couldn’t ask to change anything.”
The 23-year-old Phelps follows a more traditional winner, NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Sports Illustrated Group editor Terry McDonell called the selection of Phelps “the easiest choice I have made.”
“It is so obvious that he changed not only swimming, but the entire Olympic landscape,” McDonell said.
Phelps captivated Americans during his record chase, driving up NBC’s television ratings and inspiring conversations about swimming among people who had never followed the sport before. He returned to the U.S. to the ultimate validation of pop culture relevance: He hosted the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live.”
“The football players and basketball players and baseball players have it a little bit different. Everybody sees their faces more often,” Phelps said.
“Just being able to have the attention of the American public is something I’ve always wanted for our sport. I’ve been able — not only myself but my teammates — have been able to work together to allow that to happen.”