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From the archive: Olympic champ casts golden glow on his hometown

Michael PhelpsFootballSuper BowlCal Ripken, Jr.Johnny UnitasTowson Commons

For us, it was different.

Each time they draped an Olympic medal around Michael Phelps’ neck, it was like we were winning the gold.

And when they played the Star Spangled Banner — another one of Baltimore’s gifts to the nation — we got choked up watching his mom’s reaction.

While America had goose bumps watching, we puffed out our chests all the more.

And, as the rest of the country spent the last two months laying claim to Michael Phelps, we in Towson know he’s been ours all along.

Everybody — OK, almost everybody — can recount a story of how we knew him growing up, or we know somebody who knew him growing up.

Didn’t we swim at the Meadowbrook pool? Or attend Towson High, just like he did? Or live the next block over in Rodgers Forge? Shop at Towson Town Center? Go to a movie at Towson Commons?

Doesn’t he root for the Orioles and Ravens, too? And eat steamed crabs like the rest of us?

This time, forget the national pecking order where Baltimore is overlooked and underappreciated, relegated to backwater status by larger, haughtier neighbors.

With the greatest Olympic athlete growing up down the street, it’s a lot more difficult to dismiss us as being nothing more than a whistle stop somewhere between New York and Washington.

Single-handedly, Phelps elevated us to a city with a championship DNA. You might even say he’s the 2000 Super Bowl Ravens, sans the attitude.

That all these positive feelings are engendered by a common man with an uncommon gift, a combination of will and wingspan molded in our culture to become a worldwide phenomenon, makes it that much better.

For us. And for him.

Really, in grammar-fracturing terms, he is us, a guy returning to the city without chic that he will once again call home.
And we adore him for it.

Why wouldn’t we?

Baltimoreans love those who love them back. It’s only natural.

Older sports fans hold Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson in the highest esteem, even though they didn’t grow up here.
Those champions, along with native son Cal Ripken, Jr., are lionized for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which are that they exemplify the tenets we admire the most —  hard work and humility.

You never saw Johnny U barking at a vanquished opponent, or Brooksie bragging about another acrobatic grab and throw from the hot corner, did you?

Nope. Just like Iron Man Cal, they let their performances speak for themselves as they loped off the field, head and eyes down amid thunderous cheers.

Understated plays well here. Always has.

That Phelps is a little more demonstrative than the older Baltimore superstars makes him no less humble in our eyes.

For one thing, he was never bold enough to predict he would win eight gold medals in Beijing, yet he attempted the unthinkable challenge — 17 races against world-class athletes in a little over a week — with a quiet, confident approach.
He simply went about his business, much like he did before he became an athletic icon, “Saturday Night Live” host and pitchman for heaven knows how many products.

Like Brooks, Johnny U and Cal, it’s just not in Phelps’ nature to draw any more attention to himself than necessary, a trait that goes back a long way.

Just ask his Towson High American Government teacher, Gerry Brewster.

His introduction to Phelps came after Brewster asked all of his freshmen to stand and talk about themselves.

When it was Phelps’ turn, the conversation went something like this:

“So, Michael, what do you like to do?”

“Swim.”

“Are you any good?”

“Not bad.”

“Won any meets?”

“A few.”

That exchange, it should be noted, came after Phelps had already set several age-group records and was a threat to become the youngest U.S. male Olympian in 68 years, a feat he accomplished by qualifying for the 2000 Games in Sydney at the ripe old age of 15.

“Other students didn’t really know much about swimming,” Brewster said. “So he wasn’t a celebrity, like the football quarterback. But he kept at it, kept his focus on swimming. He made enormous sacrifices, giving up almost every weekend to swim while his buddies were out. I give him a lot of credit.”

Even then, Phelps was not looking for acclaim. He simply wanted to realize his full potential.

And because of that drive to succeed, folks in his hometown are bursting with pride.

From tots, such as 2-year-old Daphne Mead, to masters swimmer Katie Hennessey, Phelps has struck a chord here that will last a long time.

When Daphne, daughter of Towson University swimming and diving coaches Pat and Maureen Mead, sees Phelps on TV, she says, “Ma, Ma, it’s Michael.”

“We don’t know where it came from,” Pat Mead said. “It just came out of the blue. But I think he inspires all kinds of people, not just swimmers.”

Swimmers, though, certainly can relate to his steely determination — at least when they’re working out at pre-dawn pool sessions.

Master age-group champion Hennessey, 29, said that just seeing Phelps’ photo on the wall at Meadowbrook pool, where she trains six days per week for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, motivates her more than she ever thought it would.

“It’s unbelievable. It just pushes me to go the extra mile,” she said. “I think if he can do (a certain) time, I can do one, too.”

She also admits to being a little flustered when she met Phelps last spring at Meadowbrook.

“I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “But I did manage to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m 29 and you’re 23, and you’re my hero.'"

Hennessey added that she qualified for the Maryland State Championship against much younger and faster competitors, “thanks to Michael Phelps.”

“I would have never made it without him.”

OK, so he likely won’t win an Emmy for his SNL stint. Some say he was a fish out of water doing sketch comedy.

Not that it matters. There are plenty of comedians in the world, but only one Michael Phelps.

And he’s ours.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Michael PhelpsFootballSuper BowlCal Ripken, Jr.Johnny UnitasTowson Commons
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