“I was standing right next to Michael Phelps and didn’t even know it.”

Maggie and I were traveling home from Paraguay recently, by way of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Little did we know that Michael Phelps was on our 9-hour 777 flight from Brazil to Washington-Dulles.

By 6:30am, I was standing in the customs line, next to 2 tall guys who sort of looked like athletes/celebrities. You know — they just had that look about them, especially the one right next to me — he had a very familiar face. Well, I kept glancing over, trying to satisfy my hunch, and he never glanced back. In fact, he seemed to be staring at the pillar and away from the people in line behind/next to him. After about 10 minutes, I thought, “Oh! That familiar face — could that be Michael Phelps?”

Now, you might be thinking, “Steve, if Michael Phelps were standing in line right next to me, I’d certainly know it. After all, the man is an icon and his world-famous face has been everywhere from Disneyworld to Wheatie’s boxes … not to mention, that little televised competition in China where he brought home an unprecedented 8 gold medals!” I know, I know … but … picture this: he had what I’d describe as a broken up half-beard, long(ish) hair, he’d reportedly put on 15 pounds since the Olympics and most of all he was not smiling. Additionally, I hadn’t slept so well in economy on this turbulent red-eye back from South America. (Okay, enough excuses) So, I convinced myself that it couldn’t be him. It only looked a little like him and that wasn’t enough for me to say anything to this stranger.

Michael Phelps

After 5 more minutes, he proceeded over to the glass booth to get his passport stamped and was on his way to the final checkpoint in the customs area of Dulles Airport. Next in line, I asked the clerk (afraid to sound silly by using any specific name (i.e., Michael Phelps)), “Was that a celebrity?” To which he replied, “Yes! That was Michael Phelps hiding under that beard.”

I had been standing next to the most decorated Olympian in world history for 15 minutes and didn’t even know it! Had he smiled, even a little, that would have instantly given him away and I’m sure he knows that. I suppose part of his “disguise” when he’s trying not to be recognized is simply … not smiling. He’s got that trademark smile.

There was still time. Maggie had gotten through her customs line before me and was already at baggage claim, about 75 yards away. After getting my passport stamped, I ran to the final checkpoint where Michael was waiting behind three others. My camera was on my hip, just as it had been for our 3 weeks of vacation, so I was ready to go. “Mr. Phelps?” He slowly turned toward me and the look on his face said, I almost made it all the way from the plane to the exit without getting noticed. “I thought that was you (mostly true). Could we get a quick picture?” He politely replied, “They won’t let you use cameras in here.” I’d remembered Maggie saying not to use, or even have my cell phone out, in the customs area. It could be confiscated. A camera would certainly be no exception. He continued, “I mean, you could try, but they’ll probably yell at you.” The officer was only a few feet away and I didn’t want to gamble away my 281 vacation pictures for this “one.” My body language expressed my bummedoutedness as I turned away. I walked briskly to the conveyor where Maggie was about to grab our last bag and we were on our way to the final checkpoint and airport exit — I looked outside and apparently he’d already been picked up. Darn!

I hadn’t gotten a picture with him, nor an autograph. More importantly, I hadn’t even congratulated the guy! Regardless of the most recent news of which we’re all aware, Michael Phelps has a lot to be proud of, and he’s an inspiration to countless people around the world. Maggie said, “You’re a man of your word. People will believe your story.” Thanks, sweetie. It sure would have been cool to get that picture with him, though…

Thinking back, I wish I’d done several things differently, so I thought I’d offer these as tips for when your “celebrity” opportunity/moment arises:

  1. If you think someone is a celebrity and you’d like to share a few words, get an autograph or ask for a picture, just ask. What do you have to lose?
  2. Keep your camera on you, especially in airports and/or know how to use the camera feature of your cell phone.
  3. Remember to share something positive with the person, like “Congratulations!”
  4. Be respectful of their time, whether they are alone or with friends/family.
  5. Speak softly enough that you’re not making a scene that others will be attracted to. “Hey everybody! Look! It’s Michael Phelps! Mi-chaellllll!

Who was the other tall athlete-looking guy with him? Thinking back on the few words they exchanged while in line (mostly about shopping at Costco) and the fact that they didn’t leave the airport together, he’d probably just met him on the plane.

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  1. Steve, love the blog entry. Especially the 5 recommendations, spot on. I’ve had my share of celebrity encounters over the years. As a kid, I would mail athletes and actors a letter requesting their autograph. I’d include an index card, a return envelope, and kindly ask for their autograph. Those were the days. I’d run home to check the mail, hoping to see my Mom’s handwriting on a returned envelope! Such special memories. Yet, in person, asking for an autograph or striking up a conversation can be much more daunting. Most of us are so star struck! I had some fortunate but mixed encounters as a kid, meeting many athletes and actors. A few broke my heart by rejecting my autograph request, others made my day when they obliged. Still, I had no fear going up to them!

    These days, living in NYC and working on 5th Avenue certainly provides many celebrity encounters. My most recent encounter was with Adrian Grenier (Vince from Entourage) on the E train. He was actually riding the subway! While waiting at the train platform, I was scrolling through my iPod, looking down. Once I looked up, he was standing directly beside me! I wanted to say something, but so many people were around and I thought I’d respect his privacy. Yet, he wasn’t hiding under a beard, cap or sunglasses. I suppose he’s not an A-List guy, but still, my generation envies his character. As the train came, my opportunity passed. By the time he stepped onto the same subway car as me, everyone was staring and smiling. Yet, no one said anything either! It’s one of those unspoken rules of the NYC subway…don’t make a scene. I did snap some photos with my phone, but not one together. I regret it! At the very least, I wanted to say Im a big fan of the show and his other work, but the moment passed me by. Thing is, as you said, what did I have to lose?!?

  2. Excellent stories, Kyle. Please write to my blog as often as you’d like. Your insights are sure to entertain and educate D2E Blog readers! Thanks for sharing! Steve

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