Finally, Phelps comes home to hero's welcome in Baltimore

BALTIMORE -- Michael Phelps is barely settled in his new condo in downtown Baltimore, but the most accomplished Olympian said he is happy to finally be home.

Nearly two months after the Olympics in Beijing began, Phelps was welcomed with a hero's return of a full day's worth of activities. In the afternoon, a parade spanned nearly a mile and a half down the main street of Towson, Md., where he grew up and where his mother, Debbie, still lives. In the evening, appropriately at Fort McHenry -- the place where Francis Scott Key saw the rockets' red glare -- Phelps was honored with a fireworks display.

According to government officials, an estimated total of 20,000 to 30,000 people attended the events. Four years ago, after Phelps captured six golds in Athens, published reports estimated the crowd at a similar welcome-home fete to be between 5,000 and 10,000 fans.

Since winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Phelps has been in a midst of a whirlwind post-Olympic tour. He's been to New York (to host "Saturday Night Live"), Los Angeles (to appear on "The Tonight Show"), Cleveland (to watch his buddy Braylon Edwards of the Browns) and London (to help promote the 2012 Olympics), among other places. But it wasn't until Saturday that he was celebrated in his hometown.

After highlights of Phelps' Olympic performances were shown on a giant video screen and the Olympic theme song was played, the man of the hour was finally introduced. Wearing a black blazer and jeans, Phelps walked onto the stage, waving to the crowd and pumping his fist in the air.

"There's no better place to be than right here in Baltimore," Phelps said as his hometown "phans" cheered wildly.

Phelps planned to continue his homecoming celebration Sunday, when he was to attend the Baltimore Ravens-Tennessee Titans game.

Next, he plans to have a week of "my time" with nothing planned.

"I can sleep as late as I want," said Phelps, who has spent a lifetime waking up to early-morning swim practices.

Phelps has not done much swimming lately, and he hasn't fully formulated his back-to-practice plans. He and coach Bob Bowman have said he might return in January or February, but Phelps said Saturday: "I've felt kind of lazy. I've only had about two days of exercising since Beijing. I'll want to get back in the water before that."

But Saturday wasn't about practicing or future plans -- although he did say the Games in 2012 would be his last Olympics. It was about celebrating with his family and friends in his hometown.

"I really am living a dream," Phelps said.

During the parade, in which he rode on a Hummer, courtesy of the Maryland National Guard, Phelps said he spotted many familiar faces. Among them were former teachers.

"I saw my driving instructor," he said.

In addition to honoring Phelps, the parade also honored Katie Hoff, who captured three medals in Beijing, and several Maryland Paralympians, including swimmer Jessica Long, who won four Paralympic golds.

The highlight of the parade, of course, was for local fans to see Phelps. Unlike four years ago, when Phelps took off his T-shirt and threw it to fans, a more subdued Phelps waved to fans this time around.

When fans saw him approaching, they inched further and further onto York Road, the main thoroughfare in Towson, then crowded the street after the Hummer. Like many swimmers who have been drowned out in Phelps' wake in races, the fans found they could not keep pace with their hometown idol.

It might have been a fleeting brush with fame, but it was worth it for the fans on hand.

"We got here at 12:04 today, and what time is the parade supposed to start? Three o'clock?" asked Veronica Barfield, a senior administrator with the Department of Energy who drove about 40 minutes from her home in Glen Burnie, Md., with her daughter, Taylor, 15. "We planned this for a while. It was even on my work calendar.

"We watched every race, the whole episode of 'Saturday Night Live,' everything. He's just a hometown favorite. Our homeboy."

The Barfields said they planned to head straight from the parade to Fort McHenry to catch one more glimpse of Phelps.

The fans at both events ranged in age from senior citizens to babies. Many of the fans, naturally, were swimmers themselves.

"I got into swimming after watching Michael in the 2004 Olympics," said Nolan Demonte, 10, who enjoys swimming the butterfly and backstroke events himself.

Nolan was joined by his sister, Daisy, 8, who was wearing a Michael Phelps '04 shirt -- clearly no bandwagon fan. Like her brother, Daisy also is a swimmer, and she said the two of them often stayed up late this past summer to watch Phelps swim in the Olympic finals on TV.

There was plenty of representation from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps began swimming. Phelps will return to NBAC after training for four years at the University of Michigan.

Some of the NBAC coaches and swimmers were on hand selling official Phelps merchandise. A "Parade of Gold" T-shirt, for instance, was $22. Baseball caps with the number "8" for Phelps' feat and Katie Hoff swim caps also were for sale.

Although some in the NBAC group admitted it was a bit strange to see Phelps as a worldwide hero, one coach, Scott Armstrong, wasn't part of that camp.

"It's not that strange to me," Armstrong said. "When I first met Michael, he already had one world record. The idea was for him to be the best. It's just cool because it happened. And I know he was putting in the work to do it."

Although Phelps was the gold standard for the festivities, the crowd was supportive of the state's other Olympians.

Hoff, who was born in California but has called Baltimore home since 2003 when she began training with the NBAC, was among the parade favorites.

"[The support] means a lot," said Hoff, who spent the morning at -- where else? – swim practice. "I guess I just didn't expect it."

Although Hoff and Phelps are both Baltimore swimmers, they haven't trained much together. Phelps spent the past four years training at Michigan and has barely been home since the Summer Games in Beijing. But the two have gotten to know each other throughout the years at meets and sponsor-related events. They share the same agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon.

Hoff has been helping out with coaching duties at Loyola College in Maryland, and Phelps recently stopped by at a practice. As soon as word got out that Phelps was in the school's pool, students started swarming into the facility.

"Yeah, there were a lot of people there," Hoff said. "It's kind of strange, actually. Honestly, I look at him as the same Michael."

In the rest of Baltimore, however, that's clearly no longer the case.

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