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Hometown hero

More than 30,000 fans herald Michael Phelps' return to Baltimore area

By Childs Walker and Andrea K. Walker and

October 5, 2008

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With cascades of shrieks and the pounding of oh-so-many teenage feet, they heralded his coming. At the center of the herd, rolling down York Road, was a National Guard Humvee with a lanky young man waving from its open roof.

And they cheered again last night as the Olympic champion strolled onto the stage at historic Fort McHenry, celebrating as they watched each of his wins.

Michael Phelps played it cool in the eye of this pubescent maelstrom, staring at the throngs of young women along the parade route through sunglasses, grinning far more casually than he had after his narrowest wins at the Beijing Olympics. The swimmer didn't rip off his shirt and throw it as he had at his 2004 victory parade. In fact, he betrayed no euphoria at all.

It was as if, after six weeks on the celebrity circuit, he was used to being treated like a fourth Jonas brother or a cast member of MTV's The Hills.

Phelps finally came home to celebrate his transcendence yesterday, riding in the parade through his former stomping grounds of Towson and appearing last night at a Star Spangled Salute concert and fireworks show at Fort McHenry. He had talked, ever since winning his record eighth gold medal, about his eagerness to return.

Yesterday, the Baltimore area got to show how eager it was to have him.

Parade organizers estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people showed up in Towson to greet Phelps, fellow Olympic medalist Katie Hoff, Paralympic champion Jessica Long and several other Olympians. And 10,000 or more were estimated to have attended the Fort McHenry event.

"Everyone here is so supportive of everybody, especially sports," Phelps said last night at a news conference following the day of celebration. He noted how many high school friends and former teachers he saw along the parade route.

"It was cool. I literally tried to pick out who I knew and who I didn't."

Sure, there were the politicians and fire engines and marching bands common to all parades.

But it was the chance to glimpse Phelps that drew everyone from aged nuns to bouncing toddlers to fiery political protesters to the side of York Road. They donned red, white and blue beads and waved "Phelps Phans" signs.

Many set up lawn chairs and blankets before noon so they'd be assured of a glimpse when he rolled by hours later.

When asked why they set aside a Saturday afternoon to watch the parade, onlookers gave quizzical looks and said, "Well, Michael Phelps."

"Why wouldn't you want to be within 10 feet of such greatness?" they seemed to mean.

"He makes Maryland stand out," said Sharon Seidman of Columbia, who wore a Phelps T-shirt and snapped photos as he passed.

"With all the negative stuff going on in the world, the economy and all, this is America," said her husband, Jerry. "Everybody showing up to support our hometown Olympian."

Fans at Fort McHenry effused, as well, as they enjoyed performances by the Morgan State University choir and U.S. Naval Academy Concert Band, and the fireworks.

As Phelps' eight gold medal swims were displayed on a giant screen, the applause grew louder and louder, reaching its peak when Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, serving as the master of ceremonies, urged the crowd to "say hello the greatest Olympic champion of all time, Michael Phelps."

"I wanted to give my children a chance to see a Maryland Olympian up close," said Elaine Liberto of Catonsville, whose children swim competitively.

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