Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps entered a different kind of competition yesterday. At 9:15 a.m., the gangly kid who placed fifth in the 200-meter butterfly at the Sydney Olympics started his sophomore year at Towson High School.
Squeezing a set of broad swimmer's shoulders between two classmates in a cramped row of desks, the 15-year-old plunged into 10th-grade English and the crafting of a thesis statement.
"Michael, do you have an excuse for your absences?" asked English teacher Jeff Brotman, teasing Phelps for missing the first three weeks of school.
It was quite a switch for Phelps, who last week was hanging out down under, trading jokes with world-class athletes and basking in the limelight of an international press corps.
"I knew I needed to get back to school," said Phelps, who decided to forgo closing ceremonies so that he wouldn't get too far behind in organic chemistry, French and geometry. "I wanted to come home."
Although Phelps, of Rodgers Forge, was greeted by close friends at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sunday night, he got a very public homecoming at Towson High, where about 1,200 students crowded onto their school's front lawn to cheer for him.
"I take it you weren't expecting this," said Towson Principal Gwendolyn R. Grant, referring to the throng of well-wishers, banners and balloons. "But we really know how to welcome back an Olympic champion."
To this, Phelps just grinned and nodded, his hands planted deep in the pockets of his baggy shorts.
"It's overwhelming," he said later, after receiving a stack of textbooks from his teachers and a new backpack from school administrators. "But it feels good. It's good to be back."
After the ceremony, Phelps headed to the school office where he signed his name and noted the time of his arrival on a green sheet of paper. (Because he practices swimming every morning, Phelps starts school later than most students.) He laughed when a clerk asked for his autograph and politely chatted with classmate Angela Dixon, 16, who covered Phelps' homecoming for Towson's student-run television station. Was he surprised by the welcome, she asked.
"I had no idea," he said. "It's an honor."
Phelps' sister, Hilary, 22, who drove her younger brother to school, ran last-minute errands in an effort to get him to the celebration at the right time.
"At 8:25 p.m. we were at Giant picking up pens, paper and a binder and I thought, 'I have to find a way to waste another 20 minutes,'" she said. "So I stopped for coffee at Starbucks and he was like, 'Hilary, hurry up!'"
On his first day back, Phelps cruised the halls like a sheepish pop star.
Despite Phelps' best efforts to "get back to normal," schoolmates mobbed him, gave him hearty slaps on the back, excitedly shook his hand, and asked him for autographs. A group of girls screamed, "It's Michael Phelps!"
"I'm really proud to know someone who went to the Olympics," said classmate Tim Shelton, 15, who asked Phelps to autograph his arm. "He did a good job."
Phelps' entourage included a knot of close pals, friends who know him for more than his Olympic performance.
"He drinks three milks at lunch," said Brendan Mascuch, 15. "He eats a lot of weird stuff."
Although there was lots of speculation at Towson yesterday about Phelps' dating status, his friends set the record straight.
He's got a girlfriend. She goes to Dulaney High School.
"Oh great, there goes Towson's pride," quipped one disappointed fan.