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Where only swimmers' best will do

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The home of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club doesn't look like much.

Cars overflow the parking lot and spill onto the grass in the summer. Chubby-legged children and haggard parents splash haphazardly around the outdoor pool, which could belong to any community center in any American suburb. Inside, fitness freaks pedal and pump on exercise machines overlooking more swimming lanes.

The only signs of anything unusual are the Beijing 2008 flags that hang above the entry hall. They hint at the reality that in 2008, Baltimore is the cradle of American swimming.

Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff - who have combined for seven medals at this year's Olympics and are expected to win more - came into their own at this humble facility, tucked two quick turns off Falls Road on the edge of Mount Washington.

If Murray Stephens had told anybody that would be the case in 1968, they'd have laughed. Back then, great U.S. swimmers came from California. Period.

But Stephens, a Loyola High School and Loyola College graduate who became obsessed with swimming as a teenager in the 1950s, did not see why that had to be so. This gruff philosopher of the pool founded his club 40 years ago as a canvas for his ideas. In the decades that followed, Stephens attracted coaches who shared his scientific lust to find the best methods for propelling a human body through water and his will to drive young athletes day after day, week after week.

The aquatic club produced its first Olympic gold medalist in 1984 and became famous when Phelps won six golds in Athens 20 years later. Swimming aficionados speak in awe of the little East Coast club that has produced more than 180 age group record-holders and attracts more talent every year.

Hoff remembers walking in for the first time and "seeing all the pictures" of elite swimmers. She quickly realized that she had best swim hard every day or find another home.

"They have high standards," she says, "and that's what's expected of you."

Mark Schubert, who will oversee the U.S. swimming team in Beijing, calls NBAC "the best swimming club program in America."

"What happened at North Baltimore didn't happen by accident," he says. "The results and the records speak for themselves, year after year, championship after championship. Murray has built a culture of excellence. He had a vision and he hires the right people to fulfill that vision, from Bob Bowman to Paul Yetter to his coaches at the lower levels. It wouldn't surprise me if he already had his eye on the next great coach."

Though the club stands on the cusp of its greatest glory, it is, at the same time, a place in transition.

This fall, Phelps will return home after four years of training in Michigan. Bowman will come with him and take Stephens' place as CEO. The big names are expected to attract more talent to a club already laden with age group record-holders. But the modest space in Mount Washington is maxed out, so if the club is to take on more elite swimmers, expansion might be needed.

"If you've got $5 million handy, let me know," Stephens says over a sandwich at the nearby Mount Washington Tavern.

He and Bowman see Phelps and Hoff as the best marketing tools imaginable to expand a swimming business. But the shape of NBAC's future won't be revealed until after the pair swim in Beijing.

The club's past is inextricably linked to one man's blend of ambition, commitment, discipline and artistry.

Stephens, 68, largely taught himself to swim in his family's pool in Cockeysville. Though he competed in high school and college, his obsession with technique exceeded his talent. He found the sport fascinating enough that he accumulated every issue of Swimming World ever published.

Stephens founded the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with fellow Loyola graduate Tim Pierce. He took early inspiration from coach Lefty Driesell's proclamation that he would make the University of Maryland the "UCLA of the East" in college basketball. Stephens wanted to build a swimming powerhouse that could rival those in California and Florida.

He was both old-school in his rigor and new-school in his open-mindedness about training techniques.

"He's a visionary, ahead of his time," says Theresa Andrews, who became Stephens' first Olympic gold medalist in 1984. "The best way to describe it is, he develops with athletes a way to think through a situation. He doesn't teach you just to swim fast; he teaches you how to think."

The club cranked out top-notch competitors long before it found a permanent home in Mount Washington, sending at least one swimmer to every Olympic Trials from 1968 on.

Stephens took over the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in 1986. The place had served area swimmers since 1930 and was in sorry shape. In his scant spare time between coaching and teaching English at Loyola High School, Stephens scratched together the money to refurbish Meadowbrook. He believes that time and financial sacrifices were essential to the club's success.

"If you don't have your house up against mortgage deadlines and your kids' education on the line, if you're not committed personally and financially, maybe you're not going to find the best way to make it work," he says. "We gave this our best shot to make the process successful."

The club, which consists of about 200 competitive swimmers, takes on children at ages 7 and 8, after they have demonstrated their gifts at less demanding neighborhood pools. Stephens and his coaches focus more on laying a groundwork of efficient strokes and physical endurance than on immediate racing success for young swimmers. They know that most of their swimmers won't be national champions or Olympians, and they do not dangle such accomplishments as carrots for their pupils.

But NBAC swimmers are expected to swim hard every day of the year and set aggressive goals for improvement. Stephens has always treated success in high-level competitions as a natural byproduct of that process.

"He has a crystal ball," Andrews says. "I've been with him almost 30 years of my life and he makes these predications and they come true. He probably has more tenacity than Michael Phelps. He doesn't go for the comfortable goals, nor does he put out the comfortable goals for his swimmers. And you know that if you swim for him. But he also doesn't put anything out there that he doesn't believe he can't achieve and you can't achieve."

Stephens has never wanted swimmers or parents who view the sport as a casual extracurricular activity. He takes swimmers' improvement seriously and expects them to do the same.

"They are responsible for what they do," he says.

"I think it's real simple to understand why the NBAC has had so many great swimmers," says Kevin Botsford, whose daughter Beth won two Olympic gold medals while swimming for Stephens in 1996. "It's because the expectations are so high. The practices are really hard, they ask a lot of the swimmers, the swimmers make a commitment, and you go from there."

If parents think the club - which costs $1,200 to $2,000 a year depending on the swimmer's level - is too intense for their children, that's fine with Stephens.

"We think we're doing what we should be doing," he tells them. "You should keep doing what you think is right. But if you change your mind in a few years, we'll talk again."

Stephens' wife, Patricia, spotted Beth Botsford in a local pool at age 8 and said she belonged in a serious program. Beth's father, a former swimmer at Towson State, was reluctant to commit her to such a serious schedule. But she wanted it, so he and his wife agreed.

Beth started out learning fundamentals in a group of 30 young children. She wept the first day, because she'd never been asked to swim so much. "I want to quit," she told the coaches. "I want to go home."

Give it two weeks, they told her, and then if it's too much, so be it. She adjusted, but never forgot that the coaches put responsibility for being at NBAC in her 9-year-old hands.

"The choice to swim at a club like that is not one everybody can make," she says. "There's a certain level of expectation, not just of performance but of dedication and commitment. They're not going to compromise their standards, and they're not going to twist your arm to make you stay."

The coaches didn't talk much about winning races. Instead, swimmers strove for personal bests at every meet.

Beth Botsford set a national age-group record at age 9 and in a few years, moved from swimming three times a week to practicing every day. As she joined a smaller group of elite swimmers, Stephens became her coach.

He never minced words if a swimmer wasn't meeting his demands, she recalls, but he was always available to talk - about long-term goals, stroke technique or whatever.

"As high as his expectations were, everything he wanted, he gave back to his swimmers," she says.

Two of Botsford's most talented peers were Hilary and Whitney Phelps. No one guessed that their younger brother Michael would become NBAC's most-decorated product.

Michael Phelps showed talent early, setting a national record in an under-10 age group, but he was also a hyperactive kid with varied interests. "He wasn't what we'd call hard-core attention focused," Stephens says. He figured that the boy could easily lose interest and become a lacrosse player.

Stephens switched Phelps to a different coach every year, making sure that he picked up different strengths from each. Bowman began working with him in 1997, altering his strokes despite the boy's early success and resistance to change.

It worked. Phelps' dedication soon matched his talent to the point that he would say, "If I'm not in the water for a few days, I'm not the same person."

As Phelps ascended, Stephens stepped aside to let Bowman continue the relationship. It was the beginning of a significant change in the coaching face of NBAC, from Stephens to those he hired and trained.

The transition continued when Hoff moved from Northern Virginia to work with Yetter.

Stephens doesn't seem to mind that NBAC's greatest swimmers were coaxed to the summit by others. He sees a strong thread binding him to Bowman and Yetter.

"Bob's a trained concert pianist. Paul plays the piano and was a creative writing major. I'm a lifetime writing and language teacher, writer and poet," he says. "Are you getting anything here? It's a creative thing."

Indeed, former NBAC swimmers often use the word "creative" when describing the coaches' uncanny ability to spot and explain small inefficiencies.

Stephens' reliance on other coaches makes sense given his overall skepticism about finding a set formula to produce swimming greats.

"We're not locked into a perfect scientific method," he says. "There's always been a lot of experimentation. That is science, really. It's an evolution."

After all the success stories, families move from other states so their swimming prodigies can dip into the waters that produced Phelps and Hoff. Two-time national champion Felicia Lee, 16, moved from New Jersey to work with Yetter. Elizabeth Pelton, who qualified for five events at the Olympic Trials, came from Connecticut.

"They're the best team in the country," says Kathleen Morris in explaining why she moved her three kids from Lewisburg, Pa., two years ago (her husband stayed behind at his engineering job).

"You don't have to question if they know something," she says of Stephens and Yetter. "If you're in the swimming world, you know that they know."

The Olympics have set off a new wave of interest in the club, with families calling to ask about switching from other groups in Baltimore or about moving to town, says John Cadigan, who manages the Meadowbrook facility. More amazing, he says, has been the outpouring of worldwide media attention. The British Broadcasting Corp. called at 1 a.m. yesterday, seeking an interview.

With the club's profile at an all-time high and Phelps and Bowman on their way back to Baltimore, it is hard not to imagine a bigger future. Andrews, who manages the club's endowment, says Stephens has talked of it becoming an East Coast version of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Whatever the specifics, those who have watched NBAC's rise believe that the club philosophy is more powerful than any location or particular batch of talent.

"I think if you took Murray, put him in Billings, Mont., and gave him 10 years," Kevin Botsford says, "he'd give you a few Olympians."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

A swimmer was misidentified as Kerry Stephens in a caption to a photo that accompanied this story earlier. The Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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