Everybody revels in the grandness of this grandson

Olympics: At the Pikesville assisted-living residence of Michael Phelps' grandmother, the Games put her in the spotlight.

Athens Olympics

August 20, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Some grandparents might bore their friends and neighbors stiff, telling story after story about their grandchildren.

Leoma Davisson never has that problem.

Her friends and neighbors at the Brighton Gardens assisted-living home in Pikesville simply can't get enough of her oldest grandson - the 85-year-old woman sometimes takes the back stairs down to dinner these days, just to avoid a bit of her newfound celebrity.

She is, you see, the grandmother of Michael Phelps, the 19-year-old Rodgers Forge swimmer who has collected four gold medals and six overall at the Olympic Games in Athens.

Yesterday, seven time zones away from the bright lights of the Olympic Aquatic Centre, Davisson spent a moment in the spotlight when her retirement home organized an Olympics-themed lunch in her honor.

"It's been wonderful, but I'm just overwhelmed," she said. "Webster doesn't have the right words to describe it. I'm beyond Webster's dictionary."

Typically decorated with photos of its residents and seasonal decor, Brighton Gardens has in recent days become a shrine to all things Olympian and to the grandson of the shy, private woman now considered the most famous of the home's 80 residents.

This week's printed activity schedules have included multiple sessions to watch the Olympics in the communal living room. Even residents who stay up late to watch the prime-time broadcasts can be found around the television the next morning, watching the same events a second time on videotape.

Residents gather photos and articles about Phelps each morning from freshly delivered newspapers and magazines to present to Davisson.

The lobby and the living room "Brag Board" are crowded with posters of Phelps, news clippings and framed magazine covers. Hula hoops covered with colored crepe paper have been arranged on the walls as Olympic rings. And hanging from the building's front entrance on Reisterstown Road are an American flag and an Olympic banner reading, "Bring home the gold Michael. Love, Gran."

At yesterday's lunch, nearly every resident wore an oversized white T-shirt with "Go for the Gold" printed on the back. Staff members swathed a long banquet table in the dining room in red, white and blue and served spanikopita (a Greek spinach pie), Chinese fried rice, Turkish salad and good old American macaroni and cheese to the 60 residents who gathered for the festivities.

"It's just so exciting," said Pauline Gardner, 92, who accessorized her shirt with a glittery gold belt and necklace. "We stay up half the night now watching the Olympics and just can't turn them off, it's so interesting. And Michael's doing so wonderfully."

Of Davisson, she said, "She's like a hero to us, too."

Over and over, residents at yesterday's lunch said that what impresses them most about Phelps - even more than his medals or his frequent shattering of world and Olympic records - is the graciousness and humility he displays in his poolside, post-race interviews.

"He's drawn so much attention around the world, and yet he's a very modest individual," said 90-year-old Sam Weinblatt. "If it were me, I'd be jumping up and down."

Beatrice Schwartz, 85, a swimmer who expects to compete in her 25th senior Olympics this fall, remembers how kind Phelps was when she approached him during one of his visits with his grandmother.

"I told him, `You know, I'm trying to improve my backstroke and wondered whether you could give me a little lesson right here. I guess it's your feet that do most of the work,'" she recalled. "He was very down to earth - just a nice person."

Many of Davisson's friends say the grandmother of five shares those attributes.

"She's very sweet and very humble," Weinblatt said. "Every time I've gone over to congratulate her, she breaks into tears."

In fact, Davisson is so prone to weepy moments that she retreats to the privacy of her own room about 8 o'clock each night for the Olympic broadcasts.

"I like to watch Michael by myself so I can scream and cry and nobody sees me," she said. "I'm a very emotional person."

Davisson last saw her grandson just before he left last month for the U.S. Olympic trials in California. The pair played cards, as they often do during their visits together.

But there was one difference. This time, during a game of 500 Rummy, Phelps lost. When Davisson accused her grandson of letting her beat him, Phelps responded with a flash of the competitive spirit that has served him so well in Athens.

"Gran," Davisson said he told her, "I am out to win, whether it's you or anybody else."

Asked whether she had anything to add about yesterday's hoopla, Davisson didn't hesitate.

"I am very proud of these two kids being Scouts," she said, nodding toward Phelps' cousins, 18-year-old Sara and 15-year-old Andrew, who joined Davisson, two of her daughters and their husbands for the lunch. "And I'm very proud of my Hilary and Whitney," she said of Phelps' two older sisters.

Proving that grandmothers are still grandmothers, no matter how famous their grandchildren become, Davisson smiled as she again fought back tears:

"I'm just very proud. They're all such good, happy kids."

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