Michael Phelps sneaked into Beijing almost unnoticed. He's unlikely to go out that way.
The probable star of the Beijing Olympics avoided hundreds of fans, photographers and reporters on Monday by taking a side door out to a waiting bus while his teammates pushed luggage trolleys calmly through the arrival gate at Beijing's new Terminal 3, a sprawling addition to the city's airport.
Phelps, who's grown a mustache while training in Singapore, was eventually spotted by dozens of reporters and photographers, sitting by a window on the team bus. He ignored most of the cameras, glancing in their direction a few times as he adjusted the fit of his baseball cap.
One young Chinese girl said she had waited five hours hoping to get an autograph. She also carried an envelope in her hand which was addressed in imperfect English: "To Michael Phelps you have to look at." Asked why she wanted to see Phelps, a friend standing nearby answered for her.
"Because she thinks he's handsome."
Phelps won six gold medals four years ago in Athens, and is aiming to surpass both that mark and the seven-gold effort of Mark Spitz at the 1972 Munich Games. He will compete in eight events in Beijing, three of which are relays.
At last year's world championships in Australia, Phelps won seven and was denied the chance to go for an eighth victory when a teammate was disqualified from the preliminaries of a relay the Americans were heavily favored to win.
"I'm looking to do something different that the sport has never seen," Phelps said a few days ago in Singapore.
"I've had some of the best training I've done," Phelps said. "I've been swimming well. I've been feeling good in the water." Katie Hoff, who regards Phelps as an older brother, was one of the first American swimmers through the arrival gate. She's from the same North Baltimore club that produced Phelps, and she'll be nearly as busy as Phelps, swimming in five individual races and at least one relay.
Dara Torres, the self-described "old lady" of the U.S. team, was one of the few swimmers to speak in the rush to board the bus. The 41-year-old Torres will be competing in her record fifth Olympics.
"It's finally sunk in," Torres said. "I am very excited to be here. I just want to get to the poll and start swimming a little bit."