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Harford remembers Michael Phelps' childhood

More than 20 years ago, the man who has become the most decorated Olympian was just known as a hyperactive boy in his North Harford preschool class.

Before he won 20 medals and set numerous world records, Michael Phelps followed his sisters to swim lessons and attended the Children's Center of North Harford in Street. Brenda Marsden, who was his preschool teacher and who became director of the center, said she remembers Michael as a loving boy with a "good sense of humor."

"He was a very active boy," she added.

There's no denying that the active spirit continued into Phelps' teenage and adult life. He has competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, won medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and broke records at the Beijing games in 2008.

He successfully surpassed Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's 48-year-old record of holding the most Olympic medals Tuesday night when he won his 19th medal, according to the Baltimore Sun. Latynina has 18 medals.

Thursday afternoon at the 2012 Games in London, Phelps won his 16th gold medal, in the 200-meter individual medley, bringing his tally of Olympic medals to 20.

His success is not a surprise to Marsden, who noted that Phelps had said all along he is just doing the best that he can do for himself.

"I'm proud of him for that," she said. "He's just trained so hard and he's fulfilled his dream."

She supplied the The Aegis with a photograph of Phelps sporting a "Maine" hat in his 4-year-old preschool class and said a photograph in one of the books about Phelps, showing him on a tire swing, was taken at the Children's Center as well.

Marsden also taught Phelps' sisters and said his sister Hillary was the swimmer in the family at that time.

Another northern Harford resident, Cindy Poteet, said the same thing about the family Thursday.

Poteet knew Phelps' mother, Debbie Phelps, as her eighth grade home economics teacher at North Harford Middle School. She said she remembers seeing Michael Phelps at his sisters' swimming lessons at the school when he was a child.

"He was a very active child, very active," she said. "He moved around all the time."

The family moved when Michael Phelps was four-years-old, according to Poteet, who said they moved to help his sister's swimming career.

"She was big time on her swim team and loved swimming," she added.

Poteet knew Debbie Phelps more closely than Michael and remembers a woman who was very competitive and a great teacher. She sees that competitive spirit in Michael Phelps now, Poteet said, and believes it was instilled in him by his mother.

Until their move to Baltimore County, Poteet said Phelps lived with his family on Ridge Road in the Whiteford area and had since he was born. Michael's father was a Maryland state trooper. The parents split up.

"I think it's incredible to have an Olympian with Harford County ties," Poteet said.

Michael Phelps returned to Harford County in 2002 when he became involved in the Harford County division of the Boys and Girls Clubs, according to former director Donald Mathis. Mathis is now the president and chief executive officer of Community Action Partnership in Washington, D.C., and lives in Havre de Grace.

Mathis said Phelps' agents were looking for a charitable organization for Phelps to get involved with following his early success on the national swimming state and after a presentation, he chose the Boys and Girls Clubs. His first nationwide public service announcement included children from the Aberdeen and Edgewood Boys and Girls Clubs, as well, Mathis recalled Thursday.

Through the years, Mathis said Phelps has invited the Harford clubs' children to swim clinics, and Debbie Phelps frequently bought them ice cream.

When Phelps won $5,000 from Sports Illustrated for Kids as its athlete of the year, he was awarded the check at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club and immediately signed it over to the club, Mathis said.

"He's been a longtime fan," he said.

Mathis also called Phelps an "incredibly unselfish young guy," which he said was rare in the world of pro athletes. He also pointed out that Michael Phelps announced his decision to compete in the London Olympics at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club and not in front of television cameras.

Phelps made many fans and children happy that day with his announcement and is "grounded," Mathis added.

"He is a class act and I'm honored that he and his coach and his family let me into his life a little bit," he said.

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