- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thousands lined the streets of Towson, Md., Saturday afternoon to welcome their local Olympic heroes home, led by best-athlete-in-the-universe Michael Phelps.

The Parade of Gold down York Road honored Maryland Olympians, Special Olympians and Paralympians. But the star was Towson’s Phelps, the swimming phenomenon and 14-time gold medalist.

Mr. Phelps, 23, grew up a stone’s throw away from the parade route in the neighborhood of Rodgers Forge. He trained at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club under Coach Bob Bowman and attended Towson High School.

Towson boasts itself as partially responsible for his massive 6-foot, 7-inch wing span and ability to consume a whopping 12,000 calories a day while competing, not to mention his unmatched speed and stamina in swimming.

In Athens in 2004, he gained international fame by winning six gold medals and two bronze medals. In Beijing he won eight gold medals, breaking Mark Spitz’s 1972 record for gold medals won in a single Olympics.

Fans who had only seen images of Mr. Phelps on Olympic coverage, SNL, or the cover of Sports Illustrated caught a glimpse of the real thing as he rolled by in an open-top Hummer, shaking a clutched fist of victory. Swimming medalists Katie Hoff and Jessica Long were also spotlighted in individual cars while the remaining Maryland athletes greeted crowds from a flatbed float.

Towson pulled out all the stops to make the Parade of Gold spectacular. Included in the parade were Ravens cheerleaders and mascot Poe, the Orioles Bird, marching bands from Milford Mill Academy, Loch Raven, Parkville, Towson and Dulaney High Schools, fire engines, antique cars, cultural and community groups and more.

Among the elected officials in the parade were: Gov. Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, all Democrats.

Mr. Phelps’ mother, Debbie Phelps, waved to fans, stepping out of the car occasionally to hug old friends.

“His mom was a member of Phi Mu. Once a sister, always a sister,” said Becca Leder, a freshman at Towson University and a pledging member of the Phi Mu sorority. “His mom should come over and be like, ‘These are the girls you want to marry,’” sophomore Jessica Stein said. Both young women wore the black shirts with pink lettering of sisters in training for the sorority.

The Puentes family reserved seats along the parade route early. Juan Puentes, a computer programmer for Towson-based Black & Decker, signed his son up for swimming lessons at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club about four weeks ago. Emiliano, 4, motioned a short but graceful breast stroke when his mother, Paulina, asked what he does in class.

“I’m learning,” he said with a smile. The Puentes’ second child, a girl, is due on Oct. 23. “She will swim too,” Mrs. Puentes said.

Festivities were to continue Saturday night at Fort McHenry with the “Star-Spangled Salute to Michael Phelps.”

“There is no better location than the birthplace of our national anthem to welcome Michael and all Maryland’s Olympians home,” Mr. O’Malley said.

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