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Phelps, Maryland's Olympians welcomed home

'Best city' gives swimmer keys to city, title of honorary Ravens captain

By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

7:54 PM EDT, September 10, 2012

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Arriving aboard the Pride of Baltimore II and hailed by a cannon blast from the Constellation, Michael Phelps and Maryland's other Olympic athletes were celebrated in true local style Monday afternoon by elected officials and an Inner Harbor crowd.

"I hope that you cherish this honor as part of your memories of this summer, and as a reminder that you will always have a home — let me say that one more time, especially for Mr. Phelps — you will always have a home here in Baltimore," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as she gave keys to the city to the famously Las Vegas-loving swimmer and the other Olympic athletes.

The festive event drew several hundred people to the Inner Harbor amphitheater, many of whom were dressed in Ravens purple for the season opener later Monday evening. Phelps was headed there himself. As an honorary Ravens captain, he ran through the tunnel onto the field with the rest of the team, wearing a Ravens jersey emblazoned with his name and the number 12, and participated in the coin toss.

The swimmer, who left the London Games the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals from four Games, said it was great to be part of the city's sports scene, referring to the Orioles contending for the post-season and the Ravens beginning their season.

"I just want to say this is the best city to be a part of," Phelps said. "The O's ... and the Ravens tonight, I think for me, something that I've been able to see is how much support you guys give, we all give, our sports.

"As a city I think it's been absolutely amazing for me to watch and be a part of," he said. "I just want to thank you all again, let's get a good game tonight and have some fun."

Gov. Martin O'Malley also referred to "this wonderful coincidence of good things happening" to Maryland-based athletes, noting that the coin that would be tossed at the Ravens game was one commemorating the 200th anniversary of the defense of Baltimore and thus the birth of the national anthem.

"All of our athletes who competed, those who had the honor of representing their country and winning a gold medal, to see them stand there with their hand over their heart and sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' and know that that song was written here in the original land of the free and home of the brave, makes us doubly and triply proud," O'Malley said.

All the athletes got a swag bag from the elected officials. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also gave Phelps an extra present from one of the event sponsors — Zynga of "Words With Friends" fame — a T-shirt spelling out his name in Scrabble tiles, referring to the deluge of invitations the swimmer received when his handle inadvertently got out.

"Michael may be a citizen of the world now, but for us he will always be Michael from Rodgers Forge," Kamenetz said of Phelps' childhood neighborhood.

The band and flag team from his alma mater, Towson High, provided music and entertainment, along with videos of his London races. When the Olympians themselves arrived aboard the Pride, the crowd roared. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with children from a Boys and Girls Club from Harford County and enjoyed music and a confetti shower.

Also honored on Monday were rower David Banks of Potomac; windsurfer Farrah Hall of Annapolis; cyclist Bobby Lea of Easton; gold-medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky of Bethesda; field hockey player Katie O'Donnell, also a University of Maryland College Park student assistant coach; kayaker Scott Parsons of Bethesda; and modern pentathlete Suzanne Stettinius of Parkton.

O'Malley also read the names of nine Maryland Paralympians, who just wrapped up their competition in London on Sunday, including gold-medalist swimmers Jessica Long, Ian Silverman and Brad Snyder.

Many of the Olympians had family and friends in the audience, including Phelps, whose mother, Debbie, sisters, Hilary and Whitney, girlfriend Megan Rossee and coach Bob Bowman attended. Also joining the event, emceed by WBAL TV's Mindy Basara, were Baltimore City Council members and other officials.

It was a full day for Phelps, who also was feted at the Under Armour headquarters.

Phelps visited Under Armour, one of at least a dozen companies he has an endorsement deal with, for a rally with about 600 employees in a parking lot at Tide Point. He answered questions posed by company founder and CEO Kevin Plank, and then put two sneaker-sheathed feet — the latest Under Armour model, of course — down in a still-wet concrete block. Plank said Phelps will be the first athlete whose shoe prints adorn a walkway to be built during construction.

From there Phelps boarded the Pride of Baltimore II for the short trip across the harbor.

"It's not something you ever think about, being honored in your city," Phelps said. "But, like I've said, it's the most amazing place in the world. The fans are really the best."

Phelps said he's been busy living "the retired life," since his Olympic career ended last month in London. The 27-year-old has spent time vacationing and golfing in the weeks since, and the Inner Harbor celebration was his first public appearance in the city since the Games.

With the Orioles and the Ravens playing at home and the Olympians gathered for the celebration, not to mention perfect, late summer weather, the purple-clad mayor called Monday "just a wonderful day to be in Baltimore.

"Doesn't it make you proud," she asked the crowd, "to be from Maryland today?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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