Commentary

Phelps 'phever' is alive and well all over Baltimore

Updated: August 20, 2008, 1:46 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- David Plimpton, a father of five and a masters swimmer, recalls one day when he was swimming beside Michael Phelps.

The two were swimming in lap lanes next to each other and Plimpton was starting to feel pretty good about himself.

"I thought, 'Hey, I'm keeping up with Michael Phelps. I might not be too bad,''' Plimpton said. "Then I looked over and noticed he was doing a one-arm drill."

Plimpton started to chuckle.

"Now keep in mind," Plimpton added, "That was six years ago."

[+] EnlargeBaltimore Phelps Celebration
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesThousands of Baltimore fans cheer for Michael Phelps at M&T Bank Stadium after the game between the Vikings and Ravens.

A lot has changed for Phelps since then. He now owns a record 16 Olympic medals -- 14 gold. And he has kept millions of Americans up late at night glued to their televisions this past week, winning eight races in the wee hours of the night and besting Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven in one Olympics.

Many of those fans are like Plimpton, who makes his home in Parkton, a suburb outside of Phelps' hometown in Baltimore. Almost every night last week, Plimpton would wake up his kids to catch a glimpse of Phelps.

"This is history," Plimpton would tell them. "You'll remember this for the rest of your lives."

Two of his sons, Abraham, 7, and Christopher, 9, were up early Monday morning with a group of other young swimmers who practice with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps got his start. They were part of a crowd of NBAC swimmers -- many of them wearing red, white and blue T-shirts reading, "Born in Baltimore," praising Phelps -- who gathered at the pool to cheer on their hometown hero for a short segment on NBC's "Today" show. Plimpton's wife, Stacy, a former collegiate swimmer at Asbury College in Kentucky, was home with their other three kids recording the show.

Many of the swimmers got to Meadowbrook pool, the home of NBAC, at 6 a.m., an impressive summer wake-up call, especially considering they were too young to fuel up at a Starbucks around the corner from the pool.

Although Abraham and Christopher might not remember all the details of Phelps' Olympic heroics, they were fired up about his performances now. Christopher said his favorite Phelps moment came during the conclusion of the 4x100-meter relay, when Phelps let out a roar of emotions. Christopher, who had been showing signs of tiredness earlier, suddenly perked up as he imitated Phelps' celebration.

They were far from the only ones in Baltimore excited about Phelps.

Gauging from the crowd's enthusiasm, it's evident Phelps "phever" is alive and well in Baltimore. And it seems everywhere you go in town -- from high-end eateries to grocery stores and, of course, pools -- the topic of conversation is all Phelps, all the time. Even at the Baltimore Ravens preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night, fans held signs reading "Ravens for Phelps" and stayed in M&T Bank Stadium after the game to watch a simulcast of Phelps' final Olympic swim.

Phelps-mania continues to grow now that he is returning to his hometown after a four-year stint at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Phelps plans to train at Meadowbrook and compete in the 2012 Olympics in London, although he does not intend to swim in nearly as many events as he did in Athens or Beijing. Bob Bowman, who began coaching Phelps at 11, will become the CEO of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Baltimore County held a parade in Phelps' honor following the 2004 Games in Athens, which attracted about 10,000 fans. Another parade is in the works for both Phelps and Katie Hoff, who won three medals in Beijing and trains at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, though a date has not been set.

Still, it's a strange feeling in Baltimore, especially around the Meadowbrook pool. On one hand, Michael is just Michael, a regular guy who used to swim here. On the other hand, he's now a global star.

"I don't think anyone can comprehend what he's done," said Emily Hardinger, who went to Towson High School with Phelps and now works at Meadowbrook as the manager of the swim shop. "I'm speechless."

A few of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club alums were also at the pool to celebrate Phelps' success this morning. Among them were Adam Bulkley, a junior at Columbia who still is swimming, Emily Goetsch, an All-American swimmer who just graduated from the University of Southern California and Ellen Brooks, who is going to be a senior at UCLA, but is no longer swimming. For them, it is somewhat surreal to think that they once swam in the same pool as Phelps, now the biggest star in Beijing.

"I think it's a very weird experience growing with someone as a friend and then seeing that same person with fan clubs and people crying when they see him," Brooks said. "It's a very weird experience. To us, he's just a normal guy who we used to go out for pizza with."

Then again, they all had a sense that Phelps would take the sport to new levels.

"Michael said from the beginning that he was out to change the sport of swimming," Bulkley said. "I mean, I don't think an NFL team would simulcast a swimming event before."

Added Brooks: "He grew up idolizing the Ravens. Now they are idolizing him."

Although much has been made in the media coverage about how Phelps possesses a superhuman body, formed perfectly for his sport, what these local swimmers know is that it took much more than a unique genetic code for Phelps to achieve his success. They all know firsthand what it took in the pool for Phelps to be able to accomplish what he did in Beijing. Everywhere these NBAC swimmers would go -- be it New York or Los Angeles -- people would ask what magic was in the Meadowbrook water. Truth be told, there weren't any tricks. Just a lot of laps.

"You see him day in and day out, and sure, he's been endowed with a lot of good attributes that have helped him, but this is the culmination of a lot of hard work," Goetsch said.

And they can all laugh -- at least now -- at what it was like to try to keep up with him in training.

During the holiday season, most youngsters pray for presents. But the NBAC swimmers who trained with Phelps and Bowman prayed for school to resume. That's because holiday practices were especially brutal. One morning, about six years ago, Bowman had his swimmers do a 10,000-meter swim in two long-course lanes.

"It took about two and a half hours," Bulkley said. "And imagine being lapped for two and a half hours."

For the younger swimmers at NBAC, watching Phelps has been an inspiration to their own swimming, even if they don't have Olympic dreams.

"We're very proud of his accomplishments," said Danielle Potis, a 12-year-old swimmer who started three years ago. "It makes you want to go faster."

She can't even imagine what it would be like to swim at the Olympic level, even though she's met Phelps and has seen Hoff at the pool.

"Just going to the state championships or zone championships is a lot of pressure," Potis said. "Racing against the best in the world would be a ton of pressure."

Matthew Tomsuden, also 12, spent his family vacation last week watching Phelps swim on TV. His favorite stroke is the butterfly and he smiled when he said that, knowing that's one of Phelps' specialties, too.

"I just think he's amazing," Tomsuden said.

With all of the success Phelps has had, and all of the success the NBAC has enjoyed -- from Olympic gold medalists Anita Nall and Beth Botsford to three-time Olympic medalist Hoff, one has to wonder: Will one of these youngsters follow in Phelps' flippers? Those Size 14 shoes might never be filled, but it doesn't appear that the folks at the NBAC won't try.

Once the TV crews left and the last parents had taken their digital photos of their young swimmers, Christopher Plimpton looked up at his dad and asked, "So what are we going to do now?"

Plimpton looked at his watch. It was almost 8 o'clock.

"Well," he said. "You have swimming at 9."

In Baltimore, especially these days, it's swimming around the clock.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.