4:26 PM EDT, August 1, 2012
Baltimoreans who witnessed his odyssey unfold will remember the first 12 years of the 21st century as the Michael Phelps era. If you mark the life of this community by our shared experiences and our heroic figures — the sources of civic pride that keep us from despairing and sinking into the Patapsco — there's no getting around Phelps.
Some might prefer to call it the Ray Lewis era because of the way that larger-than-life linebacker and his Ravens so dominated the region's sports scene, winning a Super Bowl in January 2001 and then giving us hope for another Lombardi Trophy in almost every season since. In the twilight of his career, Lewis deserves to be called an "era."
Of course, not everyone marks time by athletic accomplishments. They might prefer to identify the period with something more profound — the modern Johns Hopkins era, with that great medical institution winning international acclaim while becoming the region's leading employer.
And still others give local history a harder review and mark time by the dark ages — the riots and white flight, the decline of manufacturing and the blue-collar middle class, or the crack epidemic and its violent ruin. There's no getting around any of that. It's all part of the story of this place, in some respects the dominant narrative.
Which is why we look to heroic figures. They give us courage. They give us hope.
Once upon a time, the Baltimore Colts provided that public service; some people still refer to the Unitas era as the greatest time of their lives and the life of the city. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were those heroic Orioles — Brooks and Frank and the Robinsons era, or the Palmer era, or the time of Earl, followed by Orioles Magic and the Eddie era, and later the Ripken years.
You could bring William Donald Schaefer into the mix, the mayor of the Baltimore renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s. If you say "Schaefer era," people of a certain age think of that irascible politician in his best years, when he promoted city life even as his peers stopped believing in it.
That's how we do things, how we mark time.
And so I come back to Phelps, the athlete who grew up just outside of the city, in Baltimore County, and who trained at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at Meadowbrook, and who ate all those pancakes at Pete's Grille in Waverly. We have watched him grow up. We've been following his heroic journey since before the 2000 Olympics, when he was just 15.
But, more than anyone else I've mentioned so far, Phelps is a Baltimorean of the world, unlike the other local heroes who won some national acclaim. Phelps has become the face of the Olympics, the predominant athlete of the global village. When we see him performing on the biggest stage in the world, winning more medals than anyone ever, it's easy to forget that he came from Rodgers Forge and went to Towson High School.
But he's as big a star as we'll ever see around here, and forever ours.
We'll always regard this time as the Michael Phelps era.
It's wholly amazing to think of a 27-year-old athlete as an old man. But that's the way of competitive swimming. All things being relative, Phelps could be the Ulysses of Tennyson's poem, the aging hero who became eager for a new journey:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
So, after extravagant accomplishments in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, our Michael decided to go to London for his fourth Summer Games. That he finished fourth in one race and took only silver in two others seems to have dismayed and even shocked some people. I had to chuckle at such displays of distress as Phelps picked up gold in Tuesday's relay to become the most decorated Olympian in history.
Let's stand back and marvel at all this for a moment — marvel at his commitment and his endurance, and how he presents himself to the world.
Marvel at his excellence.
Marvel at what seems like hometown humility amid a swirl of grand celebrity. Marvel at what seems like poised maturity in the Phelps we first came to know as a teenager. Here, as the end of his Olympic journey approaches, we savor his story, how he walked up to the edge of swimmer's burnout and then came back, like Tennyson's Ulysses:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
In other words, Michael — you still rock.
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