CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first time Michael Phelps swam in Charlotte, he was 12 -- but it's the last four years here that have been his biggest.
Bigger crowds, bigger ticket sales -- and higher prices. Fans like Marina Faillace pay to see their favorite Olympian.
"He's been like my idol since I was eight," she said, as she held up a large posterboard sign with pictures of Phelps and his name in orange letters.
She sat in the front row of bleachers with four other girls in SwimMAC t-shirts, waiting for a glimpse of Phelps as he walked by for his last event ever in Charlotte.
Phelps has filled seats at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center since winning eight gold medals in Beijing. He appeared at previous UltraSwim meets, and drew his share of fans -- but nothing like the last four years.
Before, tickets for finals were free or cost as little as $5. This weekend, they're $20 a seat and sold out quickly. VIP tickets cost $50, for seats behind the blocks and free refreshments. They sold out too.
Outside, fans lined up around the block by five o'clock waiting to get in. Dozens more stood in line to get a handful of resale tickets as they became available.
One thousand seats, at $20 apiece. Some fans came to see friends and family members, others came to see Phelps.
"Micheal Phelps has been the impetus to a lot of attention," acknowledged Meet Director Jeff Gaeckle, who started the UltraSwim 28 years ago at the now-defunct Revolution pool. His first Olympian was Mary T. Meagher in 1989.
The roster has grown, along with the crowds-- but 28 years ago Gaeckle never expected this.
"I never dreamed we would have an event -- people would be lining up, tickets would be sold out -- that scalpers out in front of the facility," said Gaeckle. "It's exciting for the sport."
Money raised by the UltraSwim supports the host swim team, SwimMAC, and its elite team of Olympic hopefuls. But in a few short months, this will be a sport -- and a meet -- without Phelps.
NBC Universal swimming analyst and former Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines told NewsChannel 36 he's not sure how much TV coverage swimming would get without Phelps, outside of the Olympics every four years.
NBC sends Gaines to four Grand Prix events like the UltraSwim each year, but chooses based on where Phelps will be. Gaines believes the UltraSwim will still draw fans in 2013 because people will want to see Olympians in person, but he's not sure how many people it will bring in beyond that.
Charlotte's first Olympic gold medalist, Melvin Stewart, runs a media company that follows swimmers around the country and reports on them for his news service, SwimSwam news.
He understands the impact Phelps has had on the Charlotte meet.
"I think it is sold out because of Michael, and I'm real curious about what's gonna happen in 2013, he said.
Phelps has said he likes coming to Charlotte. Meet committees make swimmers feel at home, with a lounge area, refreshments-- even couches and TVs.
Mostly, Phelps likes the cheering crowd. He swam his final event Saturday night -- a 200 fly -- and praised the packed house.
"I heard the crowd every single stroke of the way," said Phelps, "so it's definitely a cool way to swim, and swim my last race."
This is the end of one era for the UltraSwim, but Gaeckle is confident Phelps has built the momentum for another.
Ryan Lochte leads a group of Olympians who still draw crowds, and will be household names for the London Olympics and beyond. Missy Franklin is another who could win seven gold medals or more.
"Those folks are going to continue on swimming," said Gaeckle. "They're going to continue coming to Charlotte, and when they do, I'm confident the momentum we've built with the UltraSwim will continue on."