Town Welcomes Home Its Golden Champ
Phelps Is Undisputed Focus Of Adulation at Parade To Honor Md. Olympians
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008; C07
For days, Albert Kirchmayr has been melting, molding and cooling gallons of milk chocolate, all for the glory of Michael Phelps. For as many mornings, Darlene Castle has lain in bed, composing rhyming couplets for her grandkids to chant in praise of Phelps and his eight gold medals from this summer's games.
Others around town have been rehearsing songs and crafting everything from "Will you marry me?" posters to canvas oil paintings detailing step by step Phelps's journey toward the Beijing Olympics. And yesterday, all of them converged on Towson, Md., to try to throw the largest and most extravagant parade ever for the swimmer.
It was a day of glory not only for Phelps, who looked relaxed in a hoodie and sunglasses as he rode in a military Humvee past the throngs of screaming fans, but also for the town he came from. As with any hometown parade, part of it -- the fireworks, crowded streets and adulation -- was about pride in claiming this hero as one of their own, as though to catch reflected glory for everyone around him.
"Towson's pretty much still a small town," said John Cadigan, who manages the pool where Phelps trained. "It's a source of pride, a sense that one of us from little Towson went off into the big world and did something great."
So great was their faith in Phelps that leaders in Baltimore County began planning the parade before the Olympics began. Ostensibly, yesterday's event was for all of Maryland's Olympians -- medalist Katie Hoff, paralympian Jessica Long and others. But listening to the screams and professions of love as Phelps's car passed by, there was no mistaking who the main attraction was.
Teenage girls lined the streets with posters and fake medals around their necks.
Waiting for a glimpse near the front, a particularly ardent bunch of 13-year-olds spent downtime between floats enumerating the various qualities of Phelps.
"There's his abs," said Carey McDonald, wearing a handmade "I [heart] MP" shirt.
"His ears are attractive, too," said Julia Menton, holding a sign that read "Future Mrs. Phelps."
"His face," sighed Abigail Keefe, whose sign read "I'm legal in 4 years."
They had seen him on TV and reveled with him in living-room victory dances after every Beijing race, but this would be their first chance to feast their eyes on the real deal.
The parade, funded by local businesses, brought traffic to a standstill along a 20-block strip while firetrucks, convertibles, floats and marching bands wound their way through downtown, past the schools Phelps attended as a child and into Rogers Forge, the neighborhood where he grew up. Elected officials showed up in force, eager to share a piece of Phelps's spotlight. And as soon as the parade ended, Phelps was whisked off for more hours of festivities and fireworks at Fort McHenry during last night's "Star Spangled Salute to Michael Phelps."
With all the rejoicing, however, came some heavy logistical challenges.
When the county contacted Kirchmayr about making chocolate medals in honor of the occasion, he had a vision: elegant little boxes of chocolate gold medals that Phelps could toss into the parade crowds, estimated at more than 30,000 people.
Then came the worries about the packaging littering the streets and of class action lawsuits that could result from people hit by chocolates tossed by a multimillionaire sports icon. So they settled for cellophane bags with commemorative coins, which volunteers passed out by hand yesterday.
"People will still enjoy it, I think," Kirchmayr said cheerfully. His primary intent remained untouched, he said, which was to give something to the champ that he could give back to the people.
"I've never met him," said the 53-year-old chocolatier, "but being in the neighborhood while all the Olympics were happening, you felt like you knew him, like he lived next door, like he was always part of your life."
Darlene Castle, co-owner of the diner where Phelps ate many of his legendary big breakfasts, closed early yesterday and showed up at the parade with an 18-foot-long banner. Marching with her were two longtime customers dressed in chicken and egg suits, and a dozen children to whom she taught cheers especially penned for the occasion. Her favorite detailed Phelps's 3,000-calorie breakfast special:
"Two sandwiches, a bowl of grits/French toast, hot cakes with chocolate chips/Western omelet with homefries/Michael's stomach is as big as his eyes."
"I promised the kids free T-shirts and breakfast for carrying the banner," Castle said. "We got so much publicity from him eating at our place, we just really wanted to honor and give back to him."
Phelps's story contains a universal kernel of inspiration, said Cadigan, a coach who spent his morning lining up more than 100 children and teenagers from the aquatic club to march in the parade. "You point to him, and you can tell kids that he trained here, that he worked hard, that he did things the right way. And good things happened."
"The reason this whole parade is such a big deal is it's our first chance to really welcome him home," said Cathy Bennett, 57, a family friend who taught Phelps to swim as a child. "He's been around the world and back, and he still wants to come back to settle down here. It makes you realize what this town means to him, and what he means to us."
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