Phelps welcomed home by a sea of admirers

Swimmer: Thou- sands descend on Towson to honor the `hometown hero' who won eight medals in Athens.

September 12, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin and Andrew A. Green | Jennifer McMenamin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

For eight days in August, they watched him swim, shatter records and conduct himself with a gracious humility that many said belied his 19 years.

Then, for three weeks, they waited for him to come home.

Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps did just that yesterday, and thousands of people from across Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region greeted him on the streets of Towson.

There, public officials renamed a street in his honor, led a parade down York Road and bestowed upon him more proclamations, flags, plaques and trinkets than he could carry.

"He's the hometown hero. He's right up there with the ranks of Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken [Jr.] after just one eight-day event," said Richard Arrington, 43, a hotel concierge whose 18-month-old son, Nathan, wore an Olympic swim cap that Phelps tossed out from the back of a black Hummer during the parade.

To the many young girls and teenagers in the crowd, however, Phelps is not just a hero. He is also something of a hometown heartthrob.

Stephanie Apostolico, 16, knew as soon as she learned of yesterday's festivities in Towson that she had to attend -- never mind that she lives about 20 miles north of New York City.

She got her parents, J.D. and Barbara Apostolico, out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and by 8 o'clock had staked out a prime spot on the parade route.

Phelps, she explained, is someone to admire. "He's an amazing swimmer. A great athlete. Very inspiring," she said.

All true, her parents noted, but they suggested there might be other reasons Stephanie and hundreds of other teenage girls dragged themselves out of bed on a Saturday morning.

"Uh, well, there's that, too," she admitted.

From the moment the crowd at Phelps' alma mater, Towson High School, first spotted the 6-foot-4-inch swimmer ambling down Cedar Avenue in a red T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, flip-flops and dark sunglasses, the cheers hit an ear-piercing level.

`Welcome home'

With the high school's marching band playing its first-ever event, police and television news helicopters buzzing overhead and Phelps' elementary, middle and high school teachers lining the steps, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. kicked off the festivities.

"Well, Michael," he said, "welcome home."

Standing at the stretch of Cedar Avenue in front of Towson High that had just been renamed Michael Phelps Way, the swimmer described how it felt to return home Friday for the first time since July, when he left the Rodgers Forge rowhouse he shares with his mother to travel to the Olympic trials in California, then to Athens, and now across the country with Disney's "Swim with the Stars" national tour.

"It's absolutely incredible," he said. "Since we entered back into the country, the only thing I've been talking about is coming here to Baltimore. I missed it.

"I am moving to Michigan," Phelps added of his plans to follow his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to the University of Michigan next month, "but this is always going to be my home."

Phelps, who won six gold and two bronze medals in Athens, was like the Pied Piper of Towson upon his return. He rolled down the parade route in the Hummer, tossing T-shirts and buttons to the crowd, with a constantly expanding mass of people falling in behind him as he went by.

Crowd goes wild

The height of the mania came at the end of the parade, when he pulled off his shirt and threw it to the crowd. In the moment that he stood stripped to the waist in the back of the truck, a squeal erupted from the crowd that reminded some attendees of a Beatles concert.

The "Phelpstival" -- as Baltimore County organizers named their day of all things Michael Phelps -- attracted an estimated 9,000 people who lined the parade route and crowded into Courthouse Plaza.

Among them were parents with young children in tow, swimmers to whom Phelps' accomplishments in the pool were all the more impressive, and Marylanders of all ages who were simply proud to show their support.

The Edwards brood of Rockville -- 8-year-old Katie, 6-year-old Patrick and 4-year-old Matthew -- bolted out of bed at 6:30 in the morning, ready to catch an in-person glimpse of their favorite Olympian.

"We taped the races for them every night after they went to bed, and they watched them all," Annmarie Edwards, the children's mother, said. "Then they'd go to the pool and pretend they were him, swimming relay after relay after relay."

`A good kid'

Flo Vincent, 61, of Frederick brought several girls from her church's youth group.

"He's a good kid," she said of Phelps. "One thing I remember him saying was that when he puts his uniform on and it has the American flag on it, it doesn't get any better than that. Especially today, that's an important kind of role model for kids to have."

Swimmers Gem Hughes, 16, of Essex and Melissa Bunker, 16, of Edgewood both train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club facilities in Harford County.

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