TOWSON, Maryland (Reuters) - As swimmer Michael Phelps made sporting history winning his eighth Olympic medal in a single Olympics on Saturday, his home town erupted in joy.
Around the country, many other Americans said his success lifted the national mood in tough economic times.
In Towson Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, all eyes were glued to TV sets as Phelps stepped into the Olympic pool for his final swim of the Olympics, the third leg of the 4x100 meters medley relay.
“It’s great, it’s awesome,” said Joe Centineo, 24, of nearby Hampstead. “How often could you say you saw history being made?”
Hundreds of fans stayed in the stadium after a National Football League pre-season game between the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings to watch the race on giant screens.
They waved placards and chanted “USA, USA” as Jason Lezak, swimming the anchor leg, touched the wall to secure the win.
Cheers also erupted in the Greene Turtle sports bar in Towson as Phelps took the lead during his butterfly leg.
Phelps, 23, broke Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven golds at a single Games. He won six golds in Athens in 2004.
“I was in Germany when Mark Spitz won those seven gold medals, and I’d love Michael Phelps to top it,” said Karen Bartol, a financial writer from Chicago, and a former competitive swimmer, before Phelps’s final event.
“I think it’s an incredible feat for Phelps and I‘m in awe of him,” said Bartol. “He has an incredible amount of endurance.”
Nearby, an auto repair shop boosted Phelps and fellow local hero swimming Katie Hoff with an illuminated sign saying, “Go Phelps and Hoff, we are proud of you champs.”
Phelps’s quest transfixed Americans. The 4x100 men’s freestyle relay, which gave Phelps his second gold, was viewed live by 81 million people while another 1.7 million saw the race via online video, NBC said.
In Miami Beach, Margarita Quiroz, a swimming pool cleaner originally from Colombia, said Phelps’s success made her feel proud to be an American.
“It makes me feel very nationalistic sitting in front of the television,” she said. “I watch him every chance I get.”
Phelps’s success has helped some people forget high fuel prices and rising unemployment that have created difficult economic conditions for many Americans.
“The economy and gas prices are always on your mind but Michael’s success helps you forget depressing things (and gives you) something to hope for,” said Samantha Higgins, a homemaker in Los Angeles.
Even those unmoved by Phelps’s success recognize his value as a role model for American youth. “I don’t really care,” said Elizabeth Jambor, whose daughter was playing in a Miami skateboard park. “But I do think it’s great for these kids to have a really good role model instead of all this hip-hop crap they have.”
George Kennedy, who coaches swimming at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, got to know Phelps when his team shared a training pool with the champion before the 2004 Games.
He said Phelps’s success has inspired the current generation of young swimmers at Johns Hopkins. “Each one of those kids wants to be the new Michael Phelps,” he said.
Kennedy, 53, said Phelps was never arrogant but had a “killer instinct” in the swimming pool. “He’s just better than everybody else,” he said.
Editing by Alan Elsner