Homecoming King

Michael Phelps returns home to find he's more than a hero -- he's a hottie

September 11, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Now it can be said with absolute certainty: Michael Phelps has groupies.

Lots of them. They squealed when he took off his shirt at Loyola College yesterday morning. They stood in line for hours, clutching Wheaties boxes and Speedos, to get his autograph in Towson. And last night, four of them painted M-I-K-E on their stomachs in College Park.

You can be sure he got the message. Phelps said he was awed and humbled at the welcome he received across Maryland yesterday, his first day home since winning six gold medals in Athens last month. He even teared up on the deck of the pool at Loyola when he heard the cheers and stomps of hundreds of youngsters.

"I've been looking forward to this moment for the last two weeks," said Phelps, who arrived in Baltimore at 4:30 a.m. yesterday and quickly headed to his Rodgers Forge home. "I was dead tired, but it didn't matter. I was so excited to be back in Baltimore and back home.

"I saw my car. I saw my mom. I saw my cat. I saw my room."

It may have been the Olympic champion's only moment of peace all day. Most everywhere he turned yesterday, he was mobbed by young girls (and their mothers and brothers) who wanted his picture and his autograph. He signed one girl's shirt - while she was wearing it. He signed another's Speedo swimsuit - while she wasn't.

"He's just an amazing swimmer and he's got a lot of talent," said the Speedo girl, Kristina Gullivan, 15, of Glen Rock, Pa., who left school for the autograph-signing session at Towson Commons. "And he's really good-looking."

Also in line were Natalie Long, 13, her mother Barbara and several friends. Asked why she wanted to meet Phelps, Natalie said, "Because of his incredible talent."

Her mom raised her eyebrows at that. "She's in looove with him," she teased.

"Mom!" Natalie screamed. But she couldn't deny it.

Join the club

And, really, who isn't in love with Michael Phelps? Even Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith got in on the lovefest yesterday, eating breakfast at Pete's Grille, the Waverly diner where Phelps devours heart-stopping meals.

Phelps wasn't there, but O'Malley gave the swimmer a run for his money in the eating department. In less than 30 minutes, the mayor put away a Western omelet, home fries, toast and three blueberry pancakes.

Atkins who?

Though Phelps lives in Baltimore County, O'Malley said the city has some claim on him, too. "Michael Phelps is a metropolitan Renaissance man. He may live in the county, but he comes into the city to throw back those 7,000-calorie breakfasts," O'Malley said.

Phelps made his first appearance of the day at the Loyola Fitness and Aquatics Center, where 520 Riverview Elementary pupils serenaded him with "We Are the Champions" while Phelps' mother, Debbie, danced with Mickey Mouse.

Phelps was joined at Loyola by Ian Crocker and Lenny Krayzelburg, fellow Olympic gold medalists and his co-stars in Disney's "Swim with the Stars" tour, which is hitting 12 cities this month and next. They all took questions from the students before demonstrating strokes and then leading relay teams with nine of the children.

Some of the youngsters were apparently overcome by nerves. One girl couldn't finish her relay leg and had to be rescued by a lifeguard. Another clung to the wall before Krayzelburg put the child on his back and ferried him to the other side.

Finally, the three stars raced each other across the 25-meter pool. Though no official time was kept, it appeared that Phelps barely out-touched Crocker at the wall. The nine kids each received a gold medal, with Phelps himself placing them around their necks and then taking the children's tiny hands in his own.

And then the cameras

After the event, Phelps was mobbed by TV cameras as a phalanx of publicists and handlers from Disney, Speedo and his agency, Octagon, looked on. He was asked what it's like to transform almost overnight from a relatively anonymous teenager to an international sports star and world-class hottie.

"It's been strange all over the country," he said. "We'll be walking through a mall, and people will do double-takes and say, `That's Michael Phelps!' But if I want to take swimming to the next level, it's something I'll get used to."

Phelps travels these days not in his beloved Cadillac Escalade (which he did briefly drive through the dark streets of Towson early yesterday morning) but an even bigger vehicle - a giant Disney tour bus that formerly belonged to magician David Copperfield. Now it has Mickey painted on the outside and Playstations inside, where the swimmers do battle in football and golf video games.

That is, perhaps, the only venue in which Phelps can now be beaten.

In College Park yesterday, hundreds of people lined up outside the Campus Recreation Center, some as early as 8 a.m., to get one of the thousand tickets to the finale of Phelps' long day, Disney's "Swim with the Stars" exhibition.

Inside, the three swimmers were introduced with video reels of their greatest moments. Then each disrobed before the crowd, changing into what the emcee called their "work clothes." That elicited the loudest squeals and cheers of the night - and a few blushes from the swimmers.

Once in the water, the swimmers demonstrated their signature strokes for the crowd, composed largely of young girls in bathing suits, some leaning over railings to get a closer look and snapping away with disposable cameras.

Among them were Jen Markey, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, and three friends, who painted the letters M-I-K-E on their stomachs, under their bikini tops.

"You have to look cute for Michael," Markey said, clutching a Speedo catalog with a tough-looking, bare-chested Phelps on the cover. Asked about his appeal, she said, "He's such a nice guy. He seems likable. ...

"And he's hot!"

Sun correspondent Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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