North Baltimore Aquatic Club enters new era without Michael Phelps, Bob Bowman

Erik Posegay continuing Bob Bowman's work at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Michael Phelps is merely a photograph on the wall now, casting his golden gaze on the pool at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center as swimmers in red and white "Rio 2016" caps grind out their strokes on a chilly afternoon in January.

Phelps and fellow Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt followed their coach, Bob Bowman, to sunbaked Arizona at the end of last summer. But what did they leave behind at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the Mount Washington institution where Bowman trained Phelps and a string of other swimmers to world-class performances?

The answer lies with a stubble-faced cancer survivor from Pennsylvania, who stalks the pool deck in sync with his distance swimmers, calling out times in an encouraging tone.

Erik Posegay apprenticed himself to Bowman for four years, and now, as Bowman's hand-picked successor, he's taking his first crack at leading one of the nation's most decorated swim clubs into an Olympic year.

The 35-year-old has earned the trust of his top swimmers, who admire his planning acumen, his devotion to distance specialists and his intuitive grasp of their emotional needs at any given moment.

"I moved here to work with Bob," says Chicago native Becca Mann, one of several potential Olympians training at NBAC. "But now, I'm here for Erik."

No one is a bigger fan than Bowman, who still has a financial (and emotional) stake in the club, along with Phelps. He hired Posegay in 2011 because he saw in the younger coach a remarkable work ethic and attention to detail.

"He has that kind of Puritan work ethic," says Bowman, who will coach the American men at this year's Olympics. "Very similar to me in some ways but probably even more than me. … I think Erik is the ideal person to keep [NBAC] moving."

The club was an Olympic incubator before Phelps and Bowman ever walked in the door, and there's little sign that will change anytime soon. Not only is Posegay coaching a cast of Rio hopefuls in his current senior group, USA Swimming recently designated NBAC a "gold medal" club for the 15th consecutive year based on the performance of its 18-and-under swimmers. That puts the cozy club of 200 on par with goliaths such as the 1,850-member SwimMAC club in North Carolina and the 1,000-member Nation's Capital club in Northern Virginia.

Swimmers say the culture of high expectations hasn't changed since Posegay succeeded Bowman, even if the coaches' personal styles are different.

"I'm confident NBAC will continue to be at the level it's always been," says Sierra Schmidt, a potential Olympian who moved from Philadelphia to train with Posegay.

With an eye on the future, Posegay talks of opening a satellite facility to expand NBAC's reach and of designing a more state-of-the-art headquarters in Baltimore, though the latter project is not an immediate consideration.

The Mount Washington club has always been endearing for its lack of glitz. The head coach's office is essentially an expanded broom closet at the end of a long hallway cluttered with exercise machines. Recreational swimmers from the surrounding community pound out laps in lanes immediately adjacent to those used by Olympians.

But for the photos of past NBAC stars and the posters for Phelps' swim school, it could be any neighborhood pool.

"It's got a charm to it here," Posegay says. "I love that small-club feel, but I also definitely think it can be brought to other parts of the region."

Posegay is a builder by nature. During his six years as the head coach at Parkland Aquatic Club in Allentown, he transformed the program from a feeder for local high schools to one of the top 50 clubs in the country. He didn't plan it that way. In fact, he only went into coaching to make a little money as he tried to figure out whether he wanted to be a teacher.

"But I guess I only know one speed," he says. "One way."

Modest beginnings

Posegay grew up in Allentown, a city without the kind of high-end swimming culture NBAC and other programs have fostered in Baltimore. His parents weren't swimmers but for whatever reason, he felt confident in the water. He recalls how, at age 8, he pulled a flotation bubble off his four-year-old brother because he was sure he could teach the kid to swim.

"My first coaching endeavor," he says, laughing. "It did not go well. I almost drowned him."

Posegay grew into a good high school swimmer, but nothing like the world-class stars he'd eventually coach. In fact, he thought he'd become a contract lawyer, even taking the LSAT after he graduated from Albright College.

He set that plan aside in favor of pursuing a master's degree in teaching. He coached in his spare time, embracing a life of $2 dinners built around Ramen noodles. If he saved his money all week, he might splurge on a piece of chicken.

But Posegay didn't mind the spartan existence and coaching pulled him deeper and deeper in. He picked up methods from local mentors and buried himself in books by swimming wizards such as Australian coach Bill Sweetenham.

He took the head job at Parkland, his alma mater, with a four-year vision for making it the best high school program in Allentown. He was selling himself short. Kids started commuting 20 and 30 minutes to work with him. One of his young charges was a tough distance swimmer named Gillian Ryan, who'd go on to make the U.S. national team and follow Posegay to NBAC.

He built the club even as he coached through chemotherapy treatments for testicular cancer, with which he was diagnosed when he was just 27.

Nothing could stop him from grinding out 14-hour days.

Posegay started booking Parkland into meets against NBAC because it was the best club in vague proximity to Allentown.

"Then I started to gather up enough courage to say hi to Bob," he says, grinning.

Bowman chuckles at this, recalling an early encounter when he congratulated Posegay on Ryan's national championship win for Parkland.

"He hardly spoke," Bowman remembers. "I thought, 'This guy can never coach NBAC. He can't even speak.'"

But Posegay had heard Bowman talk about the importance of coaching trees at a clinic and it hit him — he needed a mentor.

"I had gone as far as I could get on my own," he says.

He asked if Bowman would offer advice as he steered Ryan's blossoming career. The arrangement quickly grew into an offer for Posegay to join Bowman's staff in 2011.

Training the best

In the ensuing four years, Posegay learned everything from planning a high-altitude training camp to understanding the psychological complexities of elite athletes such as Phelps and Schmitt.

Bowman traveled often and when he was away from Baltimore, Posegay ran the show.

"If somebody asked me to write a Bob workout, I could fool pretty much everybody, including Michael," he says.

He has lifted many of Bowman's methods directly, including the quotes he places at the bottom of each day's workout sheet. On a recent afternoon, the words came from Alabama football coach Nick Saban: "Everybody has some chance, some opportunity to change and improve, but not everybody takes advantage. Be somebody who does."

But Posegay developed his own coaching demeanor. Where Bowman can be loud and sarcastic on the pool deck, he tries to yell as little as possible. He wants the swimmers to know that when he does raise his voice, it's because they've genuinely not responded to reason.

"When I was young, there was the hammer and the hammer," he says. "I'm still intense, but I'm a lot more patient than Bob is. He knows that. We joke about that."

Schmidt, a former junior national champion, says that when she's low on energy during a long workout, Posegay's calm, direct voice is precisely what she needs to hear. Like several of her peers, she opted to stay at NBAC when Bowman left because she felt so comfortable with Posegay.

"You either click with a coach or you don't," the 17-year-old says. "I believed in him, and it's worked out amazingly."

"Erik is very good at feeling the emotions you're going through, because he's going through them with us," says Lotte Friis, a Danish Olympic bronze medalist who's trained at NBAC since 2013.

The 27-year-old contemplated following Bowman to Arizona but remained in Baltimore because of Posegay's passion for distance swimming and because she trusts him.

Coaching the top swimmers at NBAC isn't hard most of the time. They've moved from Chicago and Philadelphia and yes, Denmark, because they're eager to embrace the club's arduous program.

"At Parkland, it was kind of like I was a dentist some days. It felt like pulling teeth to make that group go that day," Posegay says. "I don't have to do that at North Baltimore. There's no complaining. None of them complain."

His top group of eight swimmers includes Mann, Schmidt, Friis, Macedonian Olympian Anastasia Bogdanovski and Paralympic stars Jessica Long and Becca Meyers. Posegay also believes he has four or five high school swimmers who could qualify for Olympic trials this summer.

There's no supernova like Phelps, but the pool at Meadowbrook is still a place of world-class competition.

"The atmosphere hasn't changed because the expectations haven't changed," Posegay says. "We offer a program that, if you follow it, you can probably go on and do some very good things in this sport."

He hopes to keep the ship steady through the stresses of Olympic trials and Rio, then contemplate the club's future. Posegay acknowledges he'd like to coach a college program some day. But he says he's content at NBAC, which he's confident will continue to attract potential Olympians.

His wife of three years, Stevie, has also coached at the club, though she's dialed back her schedule so she can care for the couple's 1-year-old daughter.

The life of a head coach is fraught with anxieties — from an impending winter storm that will wreak havoc on practice schedules to planning the club's Countdown to Gold fundraiser in April.

Bowman openly despised the administrative side of the job. But it doesn't much bother Posegay, the born grinder who once thought he'd study contract law.

"You just do it because it's got to be done," he says.

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