The tension in the air at Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center duringMichael Phelps' 100-meter butterfly race Friday afternoon was almost as thick as the chlorine smell that filled the pool's lobby.
From the moment Phelps hit the water, the nearly 50 members of the Olympic swimmer's North Baltimore pool crowded around a TV screaming "Mi-chael! Mi-chael! Mi-chael!"
They issued a collective groan at the halfway turn, when Phelps appeared to be lagging behind.
But he pounded through the last 50 meters, and the nervousness at Meadowbrook erupted into euphoria — manifested in an earsplitting scream — as Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, stretched past South African Chad le Clos and Russian Evgeny Korotyshkin to claim his 17th gold medal and 21st medal overall.
Patrick Thomas, 13, surveyed the crowd watching the live stream from London. Most of the fans wore towels and swimsuits still wet from the pool.
"You can't walk in here," he said. "You can't even move."
Will Dereyshire joined in the celebration, though he admitted to being one of the blasphemous few at Meadowbrook: He's Team Lochte.
"But Michael Phelps is my second-favorite," the 8-year-old added quickly.
Why choose Ryan Lochte over the hometown hero?
But when they're neck-and-neck, does he root against Phelps, while surrounded by some of the swimmer's most ardent fans?
"I just cheer for both," he said — after all, they're both competing for the USA.
All others polled proclaimed their allegiance to Phelps. But whatever their loyalties, the kids at Meadowbrook treat swimming the way NFL fans treat football. They know all the best swimmers and all their best times — and they all want to be next.
"It's inspiring," Arlis Gordon, 12, said of watching the races from London. "It inspires us to go out and swim more."
Nicholas Peeples, the pool's assistant general manager, said registration in the Michael Phelps Swim School has jumped about 10 percent around each Olympic Games in which Phelps has competed.
Peeples, who has been at Meadowbrook for 17 years, used what he called the "Super Bowl analogy."
"When the Super Bowl is on, everybody wants to play football," he said.
Add that Phelps trains at Meadowbrook, and that the pool is something of an Olympic machine — it has sent at least one swimmer to every Games since 1984, according to Peeples — and Meadowbrook swimmers can envision themselves in Phelps' spot.
This year, 24 of the Meadowbrook swim team's nearly 180 members went to the Olympic trials. The only ones to qualify for London were Phelps and fellow gold-medalist Allison Schmitt.
"[Phelps] is just like any of these kids signing up," Peeples said. "But he had to start somewhere. … The mindset here is that every year we have someone going to the Olympics. And, 'If he can do it, why can't I?'"
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