Michael Phelps is so Baltimore – Towson, Md., counts -- and I love it.
He came into the London Olympics with glamorous cover guy Ryan Lochte set to take over as the golden guy. Yes, Phelps had been the chosen one in 2008 with eight gold medals in Beijing, but since then he had lost a step, or a stroke. He was disparaged and tossed aside after a loss to said replacement in London.
So when he came back to break the Olympics record of all records, the all-time total medal count, the first person he looks for is the mom who raised him and supported him through ups and downs. “I love you so much,” said Debbie Phelps.
When you hail from Baltimore, which I proudly do, you recognize the scenario, get used to the subtle disrespect and revel in it a bit. You’ve got Washington beside you and more well-known, bigger standbys – Philadelphia and New York -- to the north. If you’re Baltimore, you call yourself Charm City, delight in the quirkiness and the grit, and smile when out-of-towners yell out “John Waters” or “crabs” in a city word-association game.
I’m not the greatest swimmer, but I follow Phelps and took pride in his slightly off-kilter, All-American story. He may not be model perfect, but most of us aren’t; we share that underdog thing. From the start, there were those who didn’t believe in Phelps, teachers who complained he wouldn’t pay attention. Mom concentrated on the things he could do, and after a diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), she thought swimming would help him focus. She became a teacher and education administrator herself, a job that, after a divorce from her husband, helped pay the bills for Michael and his two sisters. My mom was a teacher, too, who returned to college when I was in grade school and helped my dad send all five of us to school and on our way.
I cheered the super-Michael of Beijing, understood the letdown that inevitably followed and worried about the missteps and embarrassments life under a microscope magnifies. He apologized for the water pipe photo and the rest, established the Michael Phelps Foundation – with a grant-giving program that provides money to talented swimmers in need -- and brought the joy of swimming to youngsters at Boys & Girls Clubs.
Going out the king is easier in some ways. Phelps had to know 2012 wouldn’t be 2008. Too much happens in between. Sure enough, on the day he broke the Olympic record with a gold in the 4 X 200-meter freestyle relay, along with a congratulatory tweet from the president of the United States, he heard disappointment from critics for the previous race, when a silver replaced the gold in his signature 200-meter butterfly – including from his hometown Baltimore Sun, no less.
Oh well, we can downplay our own, especially when he breaks a record. No one can take that away and Baltimore can add Michael Phelps to its list of flawed notables who manage to come through at the end. Besides the water, it’s a place he seems at home in. And don’t forget Debbie Phelps. Through the tears and the hugs she also deserves a medal for being there through it all.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3