Baltimore native and 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps dove into a short lesson with city summer school students Wednesday on how to overcome fear of the water and to become successful and safe swimmers.
Phelps joined about 40 excited students at the Polytechnic Institute pool to launch a partnership between the city schools' Summer Learning Academy and the Michael Phelps Swim School, which will offer 60 middle-school students up to 20 hours of swim lessons this summer, donated by its coaches.
In his remarks before the lesson, the 25-year-old Phelps said he jumped at the opportunity to help students get over their fear of water, a phobia he faced as a beginning swimmer. He said the key to being comfortable in the pool was to "just have fun," and the benefits would range from self-confidence to self-sufficiency.
"A lot of people are afraid of the water, and getting over that fear can save someone's life," Phelps said, adding that when he began swimming at age 7, he was "terrified" of putting his face in water and resorted to learning how to swim on his back.
"I didn't even want to put my head in the water when I first started swimming," he said with a chuckle.
A couple of city students got the chance to show Phelps their swim skills, particularly a technique to align the body that he had modeled for them during the lesson.
"It felt awesome," said Deonte Henderson, an eighth-grader at the Empowerment Academy who is taking part in the summer school program.
Deonte received thunderous applause and an impressed nod from Phelps when he volunteered to demonstrate his form.
"He's an awesome man that I look up to. It was awesome to show him that I can swim," Deonte said.
Through Aug. 6, students who attend the summer programs at the Beechfield and Glenmount Elementary/Middle summer school sites can elect to take the lessons from Phelps' swim school coaches after their regular classes. Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for city schools, called it a "wonderful day for the school system."
Phelps said it was a "special feeling" to be able to give back to the city that supported him so much.
"A goal of mine has always been to promote swimming and add new faces to the sport," he said. "There's nowhere better to start than Baltimore."
Baltimore students said they were grateful that such a high-profile figure took time to offer a free lesson, which included how to flutter-kick and maximize their push-offs. The Olympian demonstrated an impressive lap in the pool, staying under water for nearly the whole time to cheers from the students.
"I think for him to take the time to come here — he cares about the kids, and a lot of famous people don't do that," said Tai'Janae Scott, 12, who attends Beechfield Elementary.
City students took the chance to ask Phelps, who is training for the next Summer Olympics in London in 2012, about how he got into the sport, his future plans and his favorite athletes.
Applause rang out from the students when Phelps said his favorite sport was football and his favorite team was the Baltimore Ravens.
One student asked Phelps what his advice would be to young people who made bad decisions. Last year, a British newspaper published a photo of the swimmer with his mouth on a marijuana pipe, causing him to be suspended from USA Swimming for three months.
"I'm the first one to admit I've made some bad decisions in my life," he told city students. "I've learned from every single mistake that I've made, and I've never made those mistakes again."
The swimming program started Monday, said Cathy Bennett, director of the Michael Phelps Swim School, and is off to a promising start. Attendance increased by 10 students over the past two days, she said, and students who were afraid to touch the water Tuesday were dunking themselves during Phelps' visit.
She said that now that students were more comfortable with water, the instructors could begin to emphasize safety.
"He has a way with kids," Bennett said. "This will give us, as instructors, a model to follow. And they'll take it back with them, remember his swim, and remember being in the pool with Michael Phelps."