Reflections in the pool are one thing, but Steve Parry has had the out-of-water and out-of-body experience of being viewed as the mirror image of Michael Phelps.
And as the British swimmer-turned-broadcaster learned when scores of fans flocked around him in Tiananmen Square this week, being mistaken for Mr. Gold Medal can leave you feeling like, well, Fool’s Gold.
“It was surely embarrassing, going out there and having people think I was Phelps,” Parry told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry and Al Roker on Thursday. “I felt like a big fraud.”
Parry, who perhaps resembles Phelps somewhat in build, haircut and protruding ears, was reporting for the British Broadcasting Company. He strode the high-traffic plaza in the heart of Beijing carrying a cardboard cutout of the U.S. swimmer, and quickly found out what it was like to be the most popular athlete on the planet.
“My name is Steve and I’m from England!” he told the hovering crowd. “I’m from Great Britain!”
The crowd of more than 100 either wasn’t understanding him — or believing him — and it circled more as he pled the case of his true identity. Ultimately, police had to break up the scene, with Parry realizing it would be “absolute pandemonium” had the real Phelps attempted the same stunt.
“We went down there to do a piece on him, about how great he was, and what the people of Beijing thought about him,” Parry explained. “But it was unbelievable. I can’t imagine how he would feel if he went down there.”
No help from Phelps
Certainly, Parry, 31, was no slouch in the pool himself. The Liverpool native competed internationally in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly events. He even won the bronze medal in the 200 butterfly at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
It was Britain’s first Olympic swimming medal in eight years in that event. But obviously more attention was given to the winner. Some guy named Michael Phelps.
“Yeah, I got a good shot of his feet,” Parry joked to the TODAY crew.
“I got third. Michael broke the Olympic record [with a time of 1:54.04]. I broke the Commonwealth record [in 1:55.52]. And another guy, Takashi Yamamoto, broke the Asian record [in 1:54.56].”
Parry retired from competitive swimming in 2005 and joined BBC TV Sports for its coverage of the swimming at the 2008 Olympics. To Parry, reporting on the impact Phelps has had on swimming and beyond has been a thrill.
“You know, this isn’t just an American story,” Parry said. “This is worldwide. This guy is changing the face of the sport, and he’s doing it in such a humble fashion as well.
“I mean, he couldn’t have scripted it any better. To win by a hundredth of a second on some of his races, [have] amazing relay swims … to win eight golds is an unbelievable achievement.”
Ironically, Parry said his experience in Tiananmen Square was the first time he had really been mistaken for Phelps.
“I don’t know what gives it away,” Parry said. “I think people took the mickey out of him in school for having big ears … He’s certainly a lot thinner than I am. I mean, I must be 50 pounds heavier than he is, you know?”
At the end of the interview, Vieira attempted to adorn the Brit with some Team USA gear. But amidst the chants of “USA” from the onlooking crowd, Parry politely declined and appeared uncomfortable. It seems the face of his country would not be mistaken.