Hometown hero
Such sentiments could apply to any Olympic champion in any American town. But all the shrieks suggested that Phelps has, in fact, become something more.

"He's so much cuter in person," cooed 13-year-old Marisa Ferrari, who rode down from Doylestown, Pa., with a pack of friends to squeal at Phelps. The girls, all swimmers themselves, had on purple T-shirts, professing their affections for Phelps.

"He was like, 10 feet away from us," gushed 12-year-old Lindsay Nier. "That's amazing."

Asked if it was worth a three-hour car trip to spend two minutes near a vehicle in which Phelps rode, the girls unanimously shouted, "Of course!"

Phelps' schedule since he swam in Beijing has looked more like that of a pop star than a competitive athlete.

He traveled to New York for Saturday Night Live, to Chicago for Oprah, and to Orlando for a parade through Disney World.

Last night, Phelps spoke of how excited he is to be back in Baltimore and be able "to lie on the couch and watch TV" or simply sleep late. He promised he would be wearing his Baltimore Ravens jersey for this afternoon's football game.

His return home attracted reporters and cameras from 60 Minutes and from foreign countries such as Bosnia, Japan and Germany.

Despite his international idol status, however, many Marylanders held on to personal connections with Phelps.

Rosalind Victor, 57, arrived early for the Fort McHenry event with her 12-year-old daughter, Shaneka, who is a swimmer. Victor used to see Phelps and Hoff at local meets. "They were just another swimmer on the deck," she said. "You never expected to see them progress so far, so we thought that we should come and see them."

Rebecca Lloyd attended Towson High with Phelps. "When I say that, people are like, 'Oh my God, you went to school with Michael Phelps,'" she said with a laugh. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, it's not a big deal.'"

"It's not like he's just a TV guy to us," said Towson University sophomore Jillian Kollner. "He's real to us. I know people who know him."

Kollner organized a posse of her sorority sisters to cheer Phelps at the Towson parade. The women were not bandwagon fans. They had all watched every race during the Olympics and cheered his last victory at a house retreat in New Jersey.

"We were all watching, screaming, 'Go, Go, Go!'" remembered senior Josie Strycharz of Ellicott City. "It was just really exciting."

"It's just like, a fun story to follow," Kollner summarized. "He came from our town and made his first Olympics when he was 15, and now he's the greatest Olympian of all time. It's just a great story."

olympic park
Amid the celebration at Fort McHenry last night, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced plans for a more permanent way to honor Michael Phelps and other Maryland Olympians - a new park.

Baltimore County Olympic Park will be planned for a triangular piece of land just off the Towson Circle, Smith said, as he presented a framed architect's rendering of the proposal to Phelps.

In an interview after the celebration, Smith said that plans for the park are still in the early stages, and he is not yet sure when the park will be completed. Smith said he expected that the county would likely pay for landscaping on the site, but private funds would be sought for a monument or plaques.

"This will be a way for us to honor Olympians, and we'll start with Michael Phelps," Smith said.

Baltimore Sun staff report