Eleven Olympic athletes with Maryland ties - foremost among them - are being invited to take part next month in a parade in their honor in Towson, followed by a salute at Fort McHenry that will be capped off with fireworks.
The formal announcement of the Oct. 4 festivities came yesterday after several weeks of meetings between local and state officials who had been looking for a way to celebrate the athletes' accomplishments. Setting a date for the events depended primarily on finding a spot in Phelps' schedule, a complicated task given the demands of his celebrity.
"There's no doubt that Towson is the center of the swimming universe," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said during a news conference at Towson High School, which Phelps once attended and where he holds rock-star status.
Phelps has agreed to take part in the Oct. 4 events, officials said. He and the other 10 athletes - as well as three competitors in the XIII Summer Paralympics, which wrap up in Beijing next week - are to receive formal invitations soon from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office, a county spokeswoman said.
At the news conference, O'Malley called Phelps and fellow swimmer Katie Hoff "tremendous Americans and fierce competitors," and said $300,000 in private funds would be raised to pay for the parade and the show at Fort McHenry. O'Malley said it was appropriate that Phelps - who in Beijing stood on a podium eight times to receive his gold medals and hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" - is to be honored in the place that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the national anthem.
The governor remarked also on the number of occasions he had heard Phelps mention in television interviews his affection for Baltimore. "It was like he was a walking advertisement for great city living," said O'Malley, who served as Baltimore's mayor before becoming governor last year.
His successor, Sheila Dixon, agreed that Phelps, who bought a $1.7 million condominium in Fells Point this year, has been "a great ambassador for Baltimore."
The parade in Towson will begin at 3 p.m. at York Road and Burke Avenue and head south toward Rodgers Forge, the neighborhood in which Phelps grew up and where his mother, Debbie Phelps, still lives. The event at Fort McHenry is to begin at 7 p.m., with music, fireworks and a "star-spangled salute" to the athletes.
Standing at the news conference with Hoff's mother, Jeanne Ruark Hoff, Debbie Phelps said life has been a whirl of activity for her son since Beijing. She said she thought he was in New York, but she wasn't sure. (Phelps is in rehearsals for his hosting gig this weekend on Saturday Night Live.)
"I saw him on Leno last night," his mother recalled, describing his appearance Monday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, "and he said, 'I've been living out of a suitcase since June.'"
"'I just need to come home,' " she said her son told her by phone.
If is looking for quiet when he gets back to Baltimore, he might not get it. Even without his presence, the news conference yesterday might well have been a precursor to what awaits him. The officials' announcement, packed into the school's library because of rain, was made even noisier by a squad of cheerleaders and the school band, which struck up a booming tune to get things started.
Standing behind the podium with O'Malley, Dixon and Smith were state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, Del. William J. Frank and Baltimore County Council members Kevin Kamenetz, Joseph Bartenfelder and Kenneth Oliver.
"If Katie were here," Hoff's mother said, "I know she'd like to thank everyone from the bottom of her heart." She added that it did not matter "what hardware they came home with," an allusion to the medals her daughter captured - a silver and two bronze.