They came with pristine, unopened Wheaties boxes, with swimming caps, Olympic T-shirts and newspaper pages, all awaiting the pen of Michael Phelps.

They arrived two or three hours early, most of them young girls with parents and brothers in tow, and they formed a line that crisscrossed the hall at the Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday afternoon.

That DUI arrest this month? Forgiven. Forgotten. Gone.

"You never know when you're going to see him again, so you just have to soak it all in," said Carrie Carlson, 23, of Laurel, standing and gawking at her idol 15 minutes after he signed a towel she said he gave her after an event a few months ago in College Park.

The winner of six Olympic gold medals signed autographs for an hour at a health and fitness exposition in downtown Baltimore. But first, he answered questions from reporters about his Nov. 4 drunken-driving arrest in Salisbury, Md.

"I wanted to look at people in the eye," Phelps told the cameras, "and tell them, you know, I made a mistake. I want to reach out and affect as many people as I can."

Among the affected: Stephanie Dohmeier and Lauren Miller, both 12, of Baltimore, the first in line. As they left with their signed Olympic shirts, they hugged, hyperventilated, giggled, hugged again, and again. Lauren began to cry.

"It's really emotional for us," Stephanie said, after regaining her composure, "because it's the first time we've ever been first to experience something."

It was more than that. Phelps, 19, local boy turned Olympic hero, had displaced the likes of Hilary Duff and Orlando Bloom in these young hearts.

Alexis and Amanda Maniscalco, ages 10 and 9, of Newark, Del., arrived with twin Wheaties boxes bearing the swimmer's image and with little video poker and Tetris games to occupy themselves in line.

"I heard about him in the newspaper. I read about him, and then I watched him in the Olympics," Alexis said. "I was amazed that somebody could swim like that, because I can't."

Emerging with an autograph a few minutes later, Alexis was breathless.

"He just said hi," she recalled vaguely. "And I -- What did I say? -- I said hi."

Around her, dozens of young fans stood and stared, clutching their autographed gear, frozen in the gaze of their idol.

Some boasted of personal connections with Phelps, a Baltimore County resident. After the autograph session, Phelps charged away from his handlers into an exhibit from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he'd once trained, and bear-hugged two employees. They spent a few minutes catching up, as a swelling retinue of reporters and fans stood watching. It was the happiest he looked all afternoon.

"He's just Michael to us," Gary Peeples, one of the employees, said. "A really big, famous Michael."

Phelps was polite but subdued. The appearance was among his first since news spread that he'd been charged with driving under the influence after allegedly running a stop sign in Salisbury.

In this crowd, there was nothing but sympathy.

"Now that he's learned his lesson, he's going to move on and not do it again," Stephanie said.

"It's not that big a deal to me," said Traci Morgan, a high school junior from Baltimore who showed up with her little brother.

"She dragged me here," said John, the brother. "She's obsessed with him."

Olympic champion Michael Phelps, above, signs the swim cap of a star-struck Kylie Davis, 11, of Severna Forest and poses for pictures flanked by Christi Main, 18, left, and Sheri Stavac, 17, during a health and fitness exposition in Baltimore.