October 5, 2008
Over the course of 17 races in 1 1/2 weeks, they celebrated Michael Phelps from the privacy of their homes, their excited voices careening off living room walls, waking up neighbors and stopping nearby traffic. But for the most part, the cheers and screams faded somewhere between Baltimore and Beijing.
This weekend, the area's sea of Phelps Phanatics finally had their chance to let the Olympic champ know just what they thought of his eight-gold-medal performance at the Summer Games, and no doubt Phelps can still hear the echoes today. The cheers just might ring out until the next Summer Games in 2012.
After more than a month of touring the nation, showing off his medals, meeting with sponsors, fans and journalists and promoting his sport every time he opened his mouth, Phelps received a homecoming celebration that lasted a full day and took him from an afternoon parade not far from the Rodgers Forge home in which he grew up to a raucous nighttime party at Fort McHenry.
Evidenced by the thousands of people who took part in the celebration, Phelps has secured a safe and permanent spot in the hearts of Baltimoreans. As the swimmer finally catches his breath, unpacks his suitcases and finds mantel space for his new Olympic hardware, it's important to note that he has also secured a rare and distinguished place in Baltimore lore.
Phelps' amazing Olympic effort stands alone on the city's long list of superlatives and athletic accomplishments. We've never been treated to an athlete quite like him before, and it's not likely we will again. Just as the world had never before seen a feat quite like this - wearing eight gold medals should qualify Phelps as an Olympic weightlifter, too - it won't likely see one again.
For a brief glimpse of a smiling, waving Phelps from atop a National Guard Humvee, residents of Baltimore, Towson and beyond lined the streets yesterday for a parade - just as they had after nearly every other major sporting achievement, record and championship in the city's rich sports history.
From 1954, when the newly relocated Orioles returned from the road to Baltimore for their first-ever homestand, to Phelps' homecoming bash after the 2004 Games, the city has often had reason to line the sidewalks and celebrate its champions.
So, no, yesterday wasn't Baltimore's first sports parade, and no doubt it won't be the last. But Phelps' Beijing record is different from the city's other golden memories. Area sports fans might someday again brag about their Super Bowl champs and just maybe another World Series team, too (repeat after me: If you wait long enough, it will come).
But yesterday marked a chance to honor Phelps for something that won't likely be repeated, not by a Baltimorean and not by someone from any other city on the planet. Sure, Phelps deserved the party, but those who felt as if they were in the Beijing pool with him for every stroke, every turn and every dolphin kick of the Summer Games seemed to need the celebration just as much. It wasn't enough to cheer from their homes. Just in case it hasn't yet sunk in, Phelps needed to hear with his own ears from those he inspired.
"There's no better place to be than right here in Baltimore," he told the excited crowd last night.
Though complaints were few yesterday, it is unfortunate it took so long for Phelps to make his way home, finally allowing the city and Baltimore County to throw him this all-day party. The day was intended to honor all of the area's Olympians - such as fellow Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff and Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. But because of the five-week lag time, Carmelo Anthony, who helped the men's basketball team win gold in Beijing, couldn't take part in the celebration. Anthony was Baltimore's only other Olympic gold medalist, and his Denver Nuggets team is in training camp.
As for Phelps, he now finally has a chance to take a breath. Since June, he had been living out of a pair of suitcases. In fact, upon returning to the United States from China, he had to pick up a third. After making the rounds from community pools to MTV, from corporate speaking engagements to the Saturday Night Live stage, Phelps can finally sleep in his own bed.
Usually, an Olympic champ quickly fades from the spotlight; the slow-moving Olympic wheel spins just once every four years. Though Phelps will certainly receive some well-deserved downtime, don't expect him to disappear. His face is now recognized around the world, spotted on cereal boxes, gossip Web sites and TV commercials, and that won't soon change.
Certainly not in Baltimore. The city doesn't boast many charms this big, and it has a pretty good memory when it comes to its sports immortals.
In time, there will be other champions. But there will be only one Michael Phelps.
Long after the sun had set over Fort McHenry last night, after Phelps had taken his seat next to his mother, Debbie, on stage, and after the fireworks had finished exploding in the clear night sky, everyone seemed to appreciate that truth - from the shrieking teenage girls to those fans already basking in their golden years.
In fact, though Phelps' smile didn't fade for a second all day, it was impossible to tell just who was more excited that he had finally come home - the road-weary Olympic champion or his loyal legion of Phanatics.
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