It's 8:45 on a school night at Callowhill Aquatic Center in Pimlico, and two lines of small bodies, some topped by yellow swim caps complete with the Baltimore City Swim Club logo, are bobbing through the water, tackling the hardest stroke in swimming -- the butterfly.
Their immediate goal is to perform well in the 10th annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet in Washington on Feb. 17 and 18. But many BCSC swimmers dream of college scholarships and Olympic medals, too.
Such dreams are common among the swimmers and their parents, who say success is easier in swimming than in sports more common to inner-city neighborhoods.
As a result, BCSC parents skip dinners or eat late, and neglect their social lives in favor of making it to the pool four nights a week and Saturday mornings -- and that's about two hours at a stretch.
"You have to be in certain circles to know about the thousands of dollars in college scholarships available for competitive swimmers," said Portia Harris, assistant director of the city's Aquatics Division and a BCSC co-founder. "The team puts our kids in those circles."
Parents not only have to adjust to the time demands, but they also must get accustomed to a regimented schedule dictated by practice and meet times, and to driving to five out-of-town weekend meets a season, often staying overnight.
In the fall "when she first started, I thought we'd just come a couple times a week, but now she's up to four times a week," said Carrie Dease, mother of Sonya, 10. "But I'm not complaining because I see a change in her. There's more pep in her step. And it's spilling over into other aspects of her life. I'm just really impressed."
Another parent, Jackie Crawford, who shuttles her two teen-age daughters and a niece to practices three times a week, said her daughter Shawnice's goal of a swimming scholarship "makes me get on the ball and get her down here."
"What I try to get across to these kids is that this is a sport that they can get a scholarship in, that they can get a job in," said coach Russell "Kim" Williams, BCSC's other founder. "Soon as they are old enough, we hire them as lifeguards at the city pools in the summer. That teaches them skills they will use the rest of their lives."
The Risper family of Randallstown is typical of BCSC families. Deborah and Ernest accompany their only child, Meghan, 6, to practice at least two nights a week, from 6:45 to 9, and Saturdays.
Also typical is how the children's enthusiasm rubs off on their parents. Mr. Risper, an athletically built man of 34, signed up for beginner swimming classes at the pool after Meghan became a young star this season, her second with the team.
In the large balcony overlooking Callowhill's emerald waters, which sparkle under the bright lights, BCSC parents gather to watch their children, read or do paperwork. Some join in an aerobics class or use weightlifting equipment in a cordoned-off area near the pool.
BCSC has come a long way since it began 10 years ago with eight youngsters. The club now has 233 swimmers, ranging in age from 4 to 18; 73 compete and 160 train to compete.
Such growth is a goal of U.S. Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, which developed the Outreach Program to help develop more African-American swimmers, primarily through a summer camp and coaching clinics.
One who praises BCSC is Bob Steele, who until recently was director of coach and athletic development for U.S. Swimming.
"They have been persistent and really have done a great job in getting kids interested in swimming," Mr. Steele said. "That's only happened in a few other places. Now, it is the biggest" African-American club sanctioned by U.S. Swimming.
This season, five of BCSC's fastest swimmers moved on to the Retrievers Aquatics Team at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
"They've all done great," said Sid Burkot, the Retrievers coach and head coach of UMBC's men's and women's swim teams. "They were well-prepared, and they had great mechanics that were taught by their coaches."
One swimmer who switched to the Retrievers credits BCSC for building his confidence and helping him define his goals. "My goal now is to go to the Olympics in Greece in 2000," said Jay Mayden, 13, of West Baltimore. The BCSC "coaches convinced me that this is something that I can do, if I work harder."
Of the nearly 40 competitive teams sanctioned by U.S. Swimming in Maryland, only one other -- in Capitol Heights -- is predominantly black.
"It's an elitist sport like golf and tennis," Ms. Harris said. "At one time you couldn't find a black swimmer on a competitive team" because of cost and a lack of facilities and coaches.
BCSC tackled those issues: The 5-year-old Olympic-sized pool, on Oakley Avenue in Pimlico, was built with the swim club in mind, and fees are a modest $100 for the nine-month season. "At private swim clubs, a swimmer can end up paying $5,000" for equipment, registration fees and travel, Ms. Harris said.
The city pays for buses to transport all swimmers to meets; needy youths also get help with some other expenses. And parents and swimmers help raise money through a variety of fund-raisers.
In recent years, BCSC has produced six swimmers who won four-year college scholarships. Six of the approximately 300 best competitive swimmers in Maryland are on the team.
At pool side recently, a steaming cup of coffee in his left hand and a stopwatch in the other, Mr. Williams watched the bobbing yellow-capped heads of the young swimmers struggling to master the butterfly.
"Suck it up. Suck it up," he boomed.
The youngsters audibly sucked in more air, stretched their arms out even more and tried to take wing in the water.