Michael Phelps officially came home Saturday, and he was officially mobbed.
"WE LOVE YOU, MICHAEL!" teenage girls screamed, over and over again, as the Olympic champion's motorcade made its way through the streets of his suburban Baltimore home town. The grown-ups were only slightly more restrained.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said during the hour-long ceremony on the Baltimore County courthouse steps that followed the parade.
"We love the way you comport yourself . . . with class and dignity," added Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
"He's always been special in our hearts, and I think now he's special in yours," Debbie Phelps, his mom, told the crowd.
The fans -- thousands of them -- roared in delight, basking in the feel-good moment of Towson's "Phelpstival" celebration.
On a day when the flags in the courthouse plaza flew at half-staff in memory of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Phelps's fans turned out in the morning sunshine to unleash their adoration on the 19-year-old in baggy shorts, sandals and shades.
It was an all-American event, with thousands of fans waving tiny U.S. flags, and it was an all-American moment for the local boy who not only made good but also tied an Olympic record by winning eight medals -- six of them gold -- in a single Olympics.
"It's great to be back here, in Towson, my home town," Phelps said in brief remarks from the stage.
What else was there really to say?
Phelps was the most celebrated U.S. athlete at the Athens Games, and little has changed in the weeks since. He's become the star of television commercials and print ads, and the centerpiece of a nationwide tour of swimming stars.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said Phelps's name now stands alongside such Baltimore area sports heroes as former Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and former Baltimore Orioles Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson.
The ceremonies also took time to honor the victims and heroes of Sept. 11. Smith said Phelps embodies the hope and promise that sprang from the nation's response to that day.
On Saturday, a street in front of Towson High School, where he graduated, was renamed for him. Children and adults scrambled for the T-shirts he tossed from the motorcade. City, state and federal officials sang his praises from the podium, showering him with gifts, proclamations, flags and the key to Baltimore County.
The crowd included everyone from families to a guy in boots, jeans and a Harley-Davidson black leather jacket, an Elvis impersonator and a middle-age guy in shorts who watched the parade while puffing on an aromatic cigar.
Chris and Gordon Kurz woke up their twin 11-year-old sons, Seth and Tanner, at first light in Hockessin, Del., so that they could drive the hour to Towson for a glimpse of Phelps.
The boys are competitive swimmers, with times that rank near the top of U.S. standings for their age group, their father said, and they had been delighted to meet Phelps a couple of years ago during the awards ceremony of a swim meet. Tanner, standing along the parade route, was proudly clutching a T-shirt that Phelps had just tossed out.
"What Phelps and his teammates are doing is phenomenal for the popularity of swimming," Gordon Kurz said.
Lisa Rogers brought her four daughters and a teenage niece to the event, saying her family admired his dedication, sportsmanship, volunteer work and clean-cut image. The family had bought a framed plaque and a swimming cap of Phelps during the run-up to Athens and displayed it near their television set during the Olympics.
During the Games, the kids had their own mock Olympics in the backyard swimming pool.
"When he gave up his spot in the final race, so that a teammate [could] redeem himself, that was classy, and that really made an impact with me," Rogers said.
But there was no getting around the "cuteness" factor that drew crowds of young girls.
Kitty Robinson and Katy Turner, both 14-year-olds from the Washington suburbs, stayed up till midnight, woke up at 6 a.m., daubed streaks of blue face-paint beneath their eyes and got a front-row seat for the ceremony.
The only way it could get better, Kitty giggled, was if Phelps would come over, "take off his shirt and talk to us."