Michael Phelps may be a global icon as the most golden of Olympians, but Baltimore remains where he touches home plate both as an athlete and a fan.
"I grew up watching Cal [Ripken] do his thing. Ray [Lewis] is a good friend of mine," Phelps said Thursday. "Baltimore is my hometown, and it's where I grew up. I'm always going to have a place there. I love Baltimore, I love being close to [where] the Ravens play and close to the water. That means a lot to me."
At 26, the Rodgers Forge native is training for his fourth and final Olympics this summer, one that he hopes will cap an already record-shattering competitive career. He will swim Friday and Saturday here in the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix, his final major meet before the Olympic qualifying trials at the end of June and, a month later, the Games in London.
And yet, Phelps came close to spending this summer perhaps on the golf course, or at the controls of his Xbox, or just about anywhere but in London. After his exhiliarating yet exhausting eight gold-medal performance in the last Olympics, Phelps wasn't sure he wanted to return for another Games, and the demanding training necessary to climb one more time up Mount Olympus.
He found his way back, though, in part with the help of a fellow athlete whom he counts as a friend.
"Someone who helped me find the passion back was Ray Lewis," Phelps said in March of the Ravens' linebacker. "He's been able to help me kind of just find me."
On Thurday, Phelps said Lewis inspired him with his play and his words.
"I love to watch him play. It sends chills up my spine," Phelps said. "And his words are so powerful. It's what friends are for."
The Phelps of today is relaxed and focused, back on track after falling adrift in the wake of Beijing, sleeping in and skipping practices — and then paying for it in competitions where he found himself losing to swimmers he had previously beaten.
"I had to find the passion back inside of me," he said. "That's what has me still here today."
Some of his current sense of well-being stems from being back home, training in the same pool where he learned to swim and that he has helped put on the map as a spawning ground of champion swimmers, Meadowbrook in Mount Washington. He trained for Beijing at the University of Michigan, where he had followed his coach, Bob Bowman. But they both returned after buying the business end of Meadowbrook and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club based there.
Under Bowman's tutelage, Phelps made his first Olympic team as a 15-year-old. There would be no medals for him in Sydney in 2000, but, four years later, he dominated the pool in Athens, winning six gold and two bronze medals. And then Beijing in 2008, which would seal his legacy forever.
"He is the face of the Olympics," said the swimmer Cullen Jones, a fellow '08 gold medalist. "People only pay attention to us because he said he's going to go for eight. It's an amazing feat.
"He never made it about the Michael show," Cullen said. "It was about Team USA."
That this is his final Games has cast a bittersweet air to his preparations. Phelps has been taking photographs at every event and keeping a handwritten journal to make sure no memories are lost in the frenzy. At one event recently, a black-tie fundraising event held at M&T Bank Stadium where Phelps, ever the Ravens fan, instead went with purple neckwear. He even took a picture of the media taking a picture of him.
The sense that these moments are indeed fleeting is not lost on those who have been there for the ride, from his mother Debbie, a Baltimore County middle school principal, and his sisters to his fans and admirers.
"I'm very, very sad he's leaving," a wistful Rowdy Gaines says. The Olympic medalist has been following Phelps' journey to London as NBC's swimming commentator, covering his meets and anticipating the end of an unprecedented career.
"He's been great for the sport. He's changed our sport more than any entity," Gaines said. "He'll be missed. He's transcended the sport with his popularity."