He came, he saw, he apologized.
Michael Phelps, the standout Olympian from Rodgers Forge, strode without swagger into a health and fitness expo at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, armed only with another mea culpa for his recent brush with the law.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions gave an incorrect location for the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, home of the swim club where Michael Phelps got his start. It is in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore.
The Sun regrets the error.
At first, flanked by an entourage of expo planners, a sports marketing agent and police officers, the 19-year-old swimming star looked nervous.
Phelps arrived in dressy casual attire - his hair rakishly combed forward and with a black jacket over a white button-down shirt with monogrammed French cuffs.
But that easy smile that beamed back at millions of fans after his victories in Athens, Greece, last summer seemed to have disappeared.
He need not have worried. Phelps-mania lives on.
Several hundred people inside Hall G applauded his arrival at 1 p.m., complete with wolf whistles.
They had waited in line all morning to shake his hand, share their own personal struggles or even to say that the Lord was still on his side.
"We wanted to let him know how God forgives all of his children," said Angela Capillary, 32, a Way Corps minister from North Carolina who does Christian missionary work in Towson.
Most who attended the expo appear to have already forgiven Phelps for the error of his ways.
"I was disappointed with the arrest," said Carrie Carlson, 22, of Laurel, who brought a bath towel Phelps gave her earlier this year to be signed. "But he did the right thing and apologized. You really can't ask for more than that."
Before his fans had their due, the six-time gold medalist stood alone before print and broadcast reporters for the first time since his drunken-driving arrest Nov. 4.
"It was a mistake that I made," he said, adding that last week had been the most difficult of his life.
How many times does Phelps need to say he's sorry? Apparently more than once.
He started Monday, the day Maryland State Police told the world they had arrested him. Phelps, 19, was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol after he was pulled over for running a stop sign in his 2005 Land Rover on the Eastern Shore.
He apologized again Wednesday during a quiet drop-in visit to the Boys & Girls Club in Aberdeen.
And once more yesterday, Phelps made his case at a previously scheduled stop at the health expo, co-sponsored by The Sun.
He asked his young and not-so-young admirers yesterday to see him as a fallible athlete who quickly admitted a serious error in judgment. And he warned them not to follow him down the same path.
"Everybody makes mistakes. Nobody's perfect," he said. "But it depends on how you deal with it afterward."
Reporters huddled around him like football players around their quarterback. They asked about the future of his swimming career (he hasn't trained in three weeks but plans to get into the pool soon), lucrative endorsements (looking good) and pending court case (no comment).
They also wondered whether Phelps' name will forever carry an asterisk as yet another sports star whose image was tarnished by reckless behavior.
To that, Phelps said he simply didn't know, hoping that people see his apology as genuine.
"If you make a mistake, step up to the plate," he said. "I wanted to look people in the eye and tell them I made a mistake."
He once again declined to answer any detailed questions about the events that led to his arrest. But in a forecast of the future of his endorsement deals, Phelps pointed out that a top official at Speedo pledged to stick by him no matter the outcome of his case.
In his 10-minute news conference, his voice never wavered and his eyes never welled up.
However, Phelps said, his unflappable demeanor did crack earlier last week when a member of the Boys & Girls Club asked what his mother's reaction to the criminal charge had been.
"I never want to see that look on her face again," he said yesterday.
Even years ago, before Olympic gold turned Phelps into a household name, his mother worried about him. She knew that her son had an aura so powerful that he might not fully comprehend its reach.
"I don't think he knows how many lives he's touched," Debbie Phelps said in a 2001 interview with The Sun. "He's brought excitement to Baltimore, to families, to children. He's a great kid - not only in the water."
So here he was, the "great kid" in the eyes of many, twirling a black Sharpie pen in his fingers and waiting for another autograph to sign.
When the first ones in line approached - best friends Lauren Butcher and Stephanie Dohmeier, both 12 - the grin finally returned to Phelps' face.
Lauren walked away quaking with excitement after Phelps signed her Athens Games T-shirt.
Asked how it felt to meet Phelps or what she thought of the brouhaha over his arrest, she shrugged. Lauren was too overwhelmed to speak, her father said.
Then she started to cry, collapsing into Stephanie's arms.
"We're both, like, big fans" Stephanie explained. "He knew he made a mistake."
Lauren's father, Marty, added: "When I told Lauren about the arrest, she couldn't believe it. But we had a long talk. She knows people make mistakes."
More than 100 fans later, Phelps rose from the table, again applauded for his stand-up-guy performance. He made a quick stop at a booth set up by Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, home of the Baltimore County swim club where he got his start.
Phelps looked around the room just after 2 p.m., finally appearing relaxed. He hugged two friends and said he had to go.
"We love you, Michael!" a chorus of pre-teens called after him.
And he was gone.