Stephens' drive puts swimmers into gear OLYMPICS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You wouldn't know from the outside that the Meadowbrook Swim Club is anything more than the name suggests. Even inside the gates, there is little to indicate that the Mount Washington facility is housing some heavy-duty dreams these days.

Walk past the wading pool where the preschoolers are splashing happily. And, if you can, get away from the ear-jarring noise of the workmen's jackhammers putting the finishing touches on the state-of-the-art indoor addition. Imagine, for a moment, that there are several members of the 1996 Olympic swimming team in your midst.

In fact, you don't have to imagine.

They will do it for you.

"The Olympics were always a goal," said Beth Botsford, a 14-year-old who has been competing here for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club since she was 9.

Said Whitney Phelps, who at 15 is in her seventh year with NBAC coach Murray Stephens: "You have to work extremely hard. You can't just expect to make it."

This is not merely a spiel of dreams belonging to Stephens and his swimmers. Phelps has good reason to expect to be in Atlanta next summer, having cracked the top 10 in the world in the 200-meter butterfly. So does Botsford, who won the 200 backstroke at the spring nationals earlier this year. And so does the team's most celebrated member, Anita Nall.

Their dreams, as well as those belonging to many of their NBAC teammates, are starting to be played out, with the buildup of national meets along the road toward the Olympic trials next March in Indianapolis. One of the most important meets will take place this week, the Phillips 66 National Championships beginning today in Pasadena, Calif.

This week's meet could be most vital to Nall, the former phenom who broke the world record in the 200 breaststroke at age 15 and is now in the midst of a comeback that she hopes ends with a victory in Atlanta. She will be challenged in California by a local favorite, Amanda Beard, 13, of Irvine, Calif.

"I don't want to be watching the Olympics on TV," said Nall, 19.

That's why Nall is back in Baltimore working with Stephens after spending several months with her first coach in Harrisburg, Pa. That's why Whitney Metzler has followed Nall to Baltimore from her home in York, Pa. That's why Phelps, Botsford and Jennifer Lears, 16, a long distance ocean champion now trying to convert her talents to the 400 and 800 individual medley events, have spent nearly half their lives working with Stephens.

That's why Theresa Andrews left Annapolis during the early 1980s to train with Stephens at Loyola High School for two years and why she came home during summer vacations from the University of Florida to swim for the NBAC. "I knew that if I were to have any chance of going to the Olympics, I had to stay with Murray," said Andrews, who would win two gold medals in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Self-imposed pressure

The words and picture on the back of the T-shirt Stephens is wearing seems to sum him up well: Showing a man with his head squeezed in a vise, it reads, "Go ahead. Give it a turn. I work well under pressure." With Stephens, the pressure seems mostly self-imposed.

Who else would try to squeeze another 60 hours into everything that Stephens already did before he took over at Meadowbrook? But for the past eight years, he has owned and managed the club. For nearly three decades, Stephens, 49, has taught English and coached the Loyola High swimming team.

And, for the past few months, Stephens has been overseeing the addition of some 18,000 square feet that will bring the total at Meadowbrook up to 30,000 square feet overall, including a half-acre of water. Considering the estimated $1.4 million cost of the renovation, this could be a real-life "Waterworld," with Stephens playing the Kevin Costner role.

"It would be nice not to have our lives on the line," Stephens said of him and his wife, Patty, who earlier this month gave birth to their fourth child, all of them 6 or younger.

But it is in the role of the highly successful and often outspoken coach of the NBAC that most in the country's swimming community know of Stephens. He has helped produce a couple of Olympic champions, not to mention scores of nationally ranked swimmers at the senior and age-group levels. He hopes this week will be the first significant step in making his team a big factor in next summer's Olympics.

"The numbers game at the senior nationals is very much a game," Stephens said recently. "Teams sign on college people just to say they have 15 to 20. The only thing that matters is how you perform. We will outscore most of the teams there. I would say there's not one club in the country that has seven or eight national caliber swimmers who aren't on some kind of scholarship."

Though the NBAC has produced its share of world-class swimmers -- until Nall, the most prominent were Andrews, who won the 100 backstroke and was on the winning 400 medley relay team, and another 1984 Olympian, Pat Kennedy -- Stephens also has produced his share of critics.

Some say he promotes himself as much, if not more, than those he coaches. But even his supporters say you have to forget about his abrasive personality and just look at his impressive results. Stephens does little to deflect the criticism, even less to hide his ego.

"Someone asked me how do I know how to coach someone to a world record in the breaststroke," said Stephens. "Should I say that I know more about it than anyone else in the country? It sounds pretty self-serving, but I know an awful lot about it."

Yet he is quick to say: "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken feathers."

Said Andrews, a clinical social worker in pediatric oncology at the University of Virginia: "When you work with him on a day-to-day basis, he's very approachable. When you're just coming out of the blue, he's a very tough character to get to know. He's very abrupt, but he's got the biggest heart of any coach I've worked with. He doesn't just care about your times. He cares about what's going on in the rest of your life."

Motivation is key

According to those familiar with Stephens and his coaching philosophy, his swimmers succeed because he motivates them as well as teaches them proper technique, and because he pushes them to the outer limits of their abilities rather than accepting a decent effort.

"It's a tribute to the job Murray has done," said Dennis Pursley, the team director for USA Swimming and a former national team coach. "He does not compromise. There aren't a whole lot of coaches left who demand an uncompromised commitment to excellence. That's why his athletes do so well."

Stephens has heard the whispers over the years that his training methods are too hard and perhaps outdated, his personality too bombastic. He recalls a would-be swimmer at Loyola High asking if the rumor were true that practice began at 5 every morning. His swimmers have been told by their friends that NBAC could have meant, "No Breaks Allowed . . . Clear?"

"People have asked, 'What do you do to get these kids to be in the top 25 in the world?' " said Stephens. "My answer was a glib, 'Whatever it takes.' We don't do whatever our competitors are doing just because they might be successful."

Said Nall: "I think he's got a definite style, his way of doing things. He definitely wants the best for me and the best for each one of us."

Neither Stephens nor his swimmers could say how long, or how often, they practice. It's mostly twice a day -- and once on Wednesdays -- for two to 2 1/2 hours at a time. There are also weight training sessions, but it seems Stephens has some flexibility in this area.

"Beth finally touched a weight last month," he said.

Those familiar with the NBAC program say that Stephens is able to get his swimmers to adhere to his rigorous training program because they usually come to him at an early age. With the exception of Nall, who started training with Stephens at 14, most arrive before they are 10.

"He can get young kids who have no prior experience with coaching," said Pursley. "He plants the seed and brings them up in a mind-set that is compatible with his coaching style. A college coach can't do that."

Stephens said that his role model was George Haines, the coach at Santa Clara from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s, who helped produce several national champions. Stephens remembers as a young coach seeing Haines and other nationally known coaches in an ad for Speedo. It said, "These Guys Are Tough Customers."

Stephens' method works. It worked for Andrews and Kennedy more than a decade ago. And it worked for Nall, who took a silver in the 100 breaststroke, a bronze in the 200 breaststroke and a gold in the 400 medley relay in Barcelona.

"Sometimes, you just have to listen to what Murray is saying, and not how he's saying it," said Nall.

And sometimes you can't hear Stephens at all, as is the case on this sultry July morning. The preschoolers are playing noisily in the wading pool, the jackhammers are drilling away. The Meadowbrook Swim Center is pleasantly chaotic. Another spiel of dreams isn't too far away.

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