Bronze medal can't tarnish Phelps' image in fans' eyes

Hometown support still strong for Olympian as pursuit of record ends

Athens Olympics 2004

August 17, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

All afternoon, one member of the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center after another called or stopped by the front desk to find out the news of the day: How had Michael Phelps, the Olympic gold medalist who trains at their swim club in Mount Washington, done in the Race of the Century?

Over and over, receptionist Evie Uhlfelder patiently explained what happened.

"He won the bronze," she told one mother yesterday afternoon, "but even though he came in third, he was only six-tenths of a second behind first place, so it was an awesome race and nothing to be ashamed of."

That sentiment was echoed across the area yesterday as fellow swimmers, friends and fans of the Rodgers Forge teenager learned that an Australian swimmer known as the Thorpedo and a Dutchman with a less-streamlined name had cut short Phelps' quest to match or beat Mark Spitz's 1972 record of earning seven gold medals in swimming during a single Olympics.

"It was the fastest 200 freestyle that has ever been swum in Olympic history," said John Cadigan, Meadowbrook's general manager, who was at Ryan's Daughter, an Irish pub and restaurant in Belvedere Square that has organized watching parties for Phelps' swim team, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, each night of Olympic swimming.

Last night's crowd of a few dozen people cheered as they watched the broadcast of the race and remarked how close Phelps was to winning the silver medal.

"It took a lot of guts for Michael, in the midst of his busy, busy schedule of races that he is favored in, to take this risk, to challenge [Australian Ian] Thorpe in the 200 free," Cadigan said. "But that is in line with what Michael has said all along - he wants to race the best not because he thinks he is the best but because that is what champions do."

From the Meadowbrook pool to the North Baltimore and Towson-area neighborhoods that Phelps and his family frequent, no one seemed disappointed at the end of the pursuit for a record number of gold medals.

Some mentioned how much more competitive the world of swimming has become in the 32 years since Spitz won his medals.

Others pointed out Phelps' youth, suggesting that there will be other Olympic competitions for the 19-year-old to again challenge the long-standing record.

And many swimmers and fans stressed what an accomplishment it was for Phelps to even place third in yesterday's 200-meter freestyle behind Thorpe, the world record holder in the event, and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands. The star-studded field of swimmers had prompted television commentators and ardent pool watchers to dub the event "the race of the century."

"How many athletes go to the games and come back empty-handed? I'm very proud of him," said Jay Damon, 55, of Stoneleigh, whose wife works as the office secretary at Towson High School, Phelps' alma mater, and whose family became friendly with the Phelpses through the school. The family is responsible for videotaping every minute of televised swimming coverage for Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother.

At the Senator Theatre, where in addition to advertising the current film, the marquee also congratulated Phelps as the "gold medal winner from Rodgers Forge," owner Tom Kiefaber agreed that yesterday's race results did not change the community's pride in the swimmer he called a "hometown hero."

"The whole world is talking about this young man and he lives just up the street," Kiefaber said.

Pointing out that the marquee recognizes Phelps not for the pursuit of Spitz's record but as an Olympic medalist, he added, "That status he achieved, that's something he'll maintain for the rest of his life. Anything else that he gets is just icing on the cake."

North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmers who one day hope to be in Phelps' place on the Olympic starting block said that his performance - though not living up to the hyped expectations of a sponsor who promised him a $1 million bonus for equalling Spitz's record - inspired them to continue chasing their own Olympic dreams.

"You can expect a lot from Michael because he is Michael but he is also only human," said Courtney Kalisz, 14, who came to Ryan's Daughter last night to watch the race. She placed eleventh at the U.S. Olympic trials last month and hopes to compete at the Beijing games in four years.

"He could have chosen other events but he decided to challenge himself among the best freestylers in the world and that is definitely inspiring," Courtney said.

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