How does the most decorated Olympian decompress after a triumphant finale in London? He goes on an all-boys trip to the exotic Maldives. He poses in Louis Vuitton ads in a bathtub and with the previous top Olympic medalist, Larisa Latynina. He also returns to his home pool in north Baltimore.
I spotted Michael Phelps at Meadowbrook on Aug. 16, not at a hero's welcome, but as he worked out and swam. Yes, he is still swimming.
I arrived a little after noon and parked by the graffitied, shuttered Northwest Ice Rink. I walked through the small lot where Phelps often parks and wondered when and if I would see him there again. Would I ever see those long arms extend and almost touch the lane lines before reaching forward to grab the water, like some graceful prehistoric creature?
Not many cars were there. Families were still away for the last hoorah before school. Earlier in the week, I had flown home myself, and my husband could barely find a parking spot to pick me up at BWI. Now, with schools opening soon, more people are in the air or on the road than at the pool. August is the best time for leisurely outdoor swimming at Meadowbrook.
When I walked into the building that day, few people were in the lobby. The televisions that had played non-stop during the Olympics were off. No kids stood beneath them, jumping up and down and rooting for the hometown, home-pool favorite.
Around the outdoor pool, kids still hung out, tanned, with sun-bleached hair and suits saggier than they had been in June. Splashes from cannonballs off the pool's edge and "can-openers" from the diving board seemed bigger and louder, as if swimmers were aware their pool days were numbered.
In the sand by the deep end, a few adults read, stretched out on towels or in chairs. I recognized one, a longtime regular from Rodgers Forge, who has been sitting in the same spot ever since the facility was remodeled to include the indoor pool. The playground was empty and sunnier, too, since the derecho storm in June eliminated some shade trees.
As I walked to the farthest 25-meter lane by the ladder, a tan, bearded face in the water was looking up, talking casually to a pool manager. Home from the Olympics, there was Michael Phelps in lane 5, not in the London Aquatics Centre, but at humble Meadowbrook.
Soon he turned. His tan back arched, then his signature wingspread sent long arms out and forward in the water. He was swimming at home again, at a relaxed pace, without a cap or racing suit.
His longtime coach, Bob Bowman was not in position at the end of the lane. No one cheered. No photographers or reporters were on the deck. No one crowded by the edge, hoping for autographs. Just a few mothers and kids stood up in the sand.
Deciding not to sit and watch, I kept to my routine. I dove in my favorite lane, number 8, designated in Olympic competition for those with the slowest qualifying times. As I swam, no pronounced wake pushed against me, as it had the evening on9/11, when Phelps, then 16, came to swim, although practice had been canceled. This August day, it was just lap swimmers in the pool, albeit including one who won 22 Olympic medals.
While I swam, the Olympian raised from Rodgers Forge climbed out and stood talking to the older Rodgers Forge resident, then to another woman reading in chair, and later to a North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach and assistant manager.
Then, Phelps pulled red jams over his blue print trunks, slung a backpack over his shoulder and walked out with a buddy, just as he had done thousands of late summer days before.