The walls at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington are adorned with poster-sized portraits of past and future champions who cut their competitive teeth there. But while the record-breaking performances of world-class athletes such as Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff garner most of the swimming facility's attention, another Meadowbrook member recently enjoyed his moment in the spotlight.
Phil Wetzler, 69, a longtime volunteer coach who has dedicated much of his life to working with people with disabilities, was chosen by Team USA to serve as an assistant aquatics coach during the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China, which concluded Thursday.
"The opening ceremony was just incredible," Wetzler said by phone from the World Games. "Everybody was really up for [the event]."
The Baltimore native was selected from among 48 candidates. Initially notified that he was the first alternate, Wetzler got his break when another coach pulled out. Wetzler, who was a Marine in the 1950s, was overwhelmed when he received the news that he had been chosen and looked forward to his chance to again serve his country.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to represent my country as well as these young athletes who are working so unbelievably hard to succeed," Wetzler said before he departed for China. "I love America, and I embrace the commitment to make this group of people better and to make them proud to represent the USA."
Head aquatics coach Debbie Doman was part of the Team USA committee that selected Wetzler for an assistant coaching position. She interviewed him by phone and came away impressed with his commitment to helping the disabled.
"He's very passionate about Special Olympics," Doman said. "He's very excited about representing his country in this situation."
Wetzler's selection to the Team USA coaching staff culminates a life dedicated to working with people with disabilities, a calling he first heard as a young man. When growing up, he would accompany his mother and grandmother to a local center, the League for People with Disabilities, where both women frequently volunteered. By the time he was 18, Wetzler, who swam competitively at City and later at Duke, had already taught his first disabled student how to swim.
After he retired from the men's clothing industry in 2003, Wetzler began spending much of his free time volunteering at the League, where he continues to volunteer and now serves as a board member.
In 2005, when he found out that Special Olympics Maryland had no aquatics program, Wetzler started one and struck a deal with Meadowbrook to allow athletes to train there alongside their Olympic counterparts. Starting with seven athletes, the program has steadily grown and now has 27 swimmers and a host of grateful parents.
Mason Surhoff, the autistic son of former Oriole B.J. Surhoff and his wife Polly, is one of Wetzler's pupils. "[Phil] has a great heart," said Polly Surhoff. "He doesn't really take full credit for the amount of work he puts into coaching. He's a true volunteer."
Wetzler and the rest of the Maryland Special Olympics team were honored recently at a reception aboard the USS Constellation at the Inner Harbor before they departed for Shanghai. As he made final preparations for his trip, Wetzler echoed the Special Olympics motto, stressing competing over winning, and said his most important role as a coach was to provide encouragement and support to his athletes.
"All of these athletes know they aren't a Michael Phelps or a Katie Hoff, but they know they can be winners," Wetzler said. "Winning, to them, isn't always about a gold medal. It's about being able to participate and give their best. It's about heart, and these kids have miles and miles of heart."