You watch them swimming: stroke after stroke, yard after yard, endless lap after endless lap. You watch them and you wonder where the joy comes from. You wonder what it is that inspires them. You wonder what it is that makes them want to do it. Over and over. Day after day. Year after year.
Beth Botsford and Whitney Metzler emerge from the pool at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Mount Washington. Both are slim, with well-muscled legs. Both have brilliant smiles and sparkling eyes. And both are giggling.
"When I first started, I didn't know if I really wanted to do this," says Beth, 15. "But then I got better at it. And as I got better, I liked it more and more. Now, I'm excited when I have a good practice. I know I can keep doing better and I like feeling that."
Whitney, 18, says she doesn't like the repetitious swimming. What she likes is the results that come from it. "I compete to do well," she says. "And when I came here, I had no choice but to work hard or get lapped" (overtaken by a faster swimmer).
The hard work of both girls has led to their ultimate dream coming true. They have propelled themselves to the same place in time and history: the 1996 Summer Olympics Games.
Both have qualified for the United States Women's Olympic Swim Team. They are two of 20 members of the team and two of just 14 who will compete in individual events in Atlanta, July 19 through Aug. 4.
Beth, whose swimming career has been superlative, qualified for both the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. Whitney, who has had to overcome numerous setbacks, will swim the 400-meter individual medley.
Called the 400-IM for short, the event is made up of the butterfly, backstroke, breast stroke and freestyle.
Beth, a high school sophomore, currently holds the National Age Group Record for 13- to 14-year-old girls in both her events, clocking 1: 01.59 in the 100-meter backstroke and 2: 10.66 in the 200-meter.
She earned her place on the Olympic team by winning the 200-meter backstroke and placing second in the 100-meter during the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in March.
Whitney, who will enter the University of Florida this fall on a swimming scholarship, earned her Olympic spot by finishing second in the 400-IM. She holds the Maryland record for 17- to 18-year-old girls in the 400-IM, with a time of 4: 46.88.
"It's so great we've both made the team," says Whitney. "We've always been friends, but now we're closer. It just makes it easier for both of us, not having to go by ourselves."
Even if only one girl was going, though, she wouldn't be by herself. Murray Stephens, the girls' coach and Meadowbrook's owner, has been named an official coach of the Women's Olympic Swim Team.
Stephens is as much a part of a story about Beth and Whitney's accomplishments as the girls themselves are.
The Driving Force
Stephens has acted as an unofficial Olympic coach twice, but this year, for the first time, he has been named an official coach of the women's team. He will be in charge of four swimmers, Beth, Whitney and two others.
"I'll essentially monitor their activities, maintain lines of communications with them and be part of group motivation for the rest of the team," Stephens says, adding that on some days he'll put his four charges through their training routines.
Stephens says he considers his appointment "a validation for all the people" around him who have helped make his swimming program what it is. He also says he believes his presence at the Olympics will be a help to Beth and Whitney.
"It's an opportunity to keep the wrong things from happening," he says. "I've always believed the personal coach should have maximum access to his athletes."
Anita Nall, who won three medals at the 1992 Olympics and is now working as an assistant coach at Meadowbrook, says she is positive Whitney and Beth will benefit from Stephens' access. Nall, who trained at Meadowbrook, had Stephens around only as an unofficial coach during the Games she participated in.
Having Stephens at their side "will make it easier for [Beth and Whitney] to stick to their regular routines," Nall says. "When I was there, I thought I had to do what everyone else did. I was so worried about everyone else. Beth and Whitney won't be like that."
There is little doubt that Stephens is the driving force behind Beth and Whitney and that it is his program that has created the opportunity for them and others to swim at such incredible levels.
Besides being the owner of the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, the 50-year-old Stephens is head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Under his guidance, the club, which uses Meadowbrook as a base, is currently the No. 1 age-group swimming club in the United States. That means it has more ranked swimmers in specified age groups than any other club.
It is also No. 1 in another category that's important in the swimming world: producing Olympic swimmers from the immediate area. That means talented swimmers who want a shot at the Games needn't move halfway across the country to find an Olympic-caliber program. Beth and Whitney, for example, are from Timonium and Springfield Township, Pa., respectively.
Stephens' program does not turn out high-caliber swimmers in cookie-cutter fashion. Swimmers are promoted through various levels based on individual evaluations that include such factors as swim-meet performance times, workout performance, attendance, ability and physical and mental maturity.
As the swimmers advance through the levels, their workload naturally increases, growing from Level 1's three one-hour workouts a week to Level 4's seven to 10 workouts over seven days, lasting two to three hours each. Beth and Whitney, of course, are at Level 4, which is senior status.
Since 1967, when the club was founded, 10 NBAC-trained swimmers have made Olympic teams; five while associated with the club. Two of those five received medals: Theresa Andrews won gold in both the 100-meter backstroke and the 400-medley relay in 1984; and Anita Nall won gold in the 400-medley relay, silver in the 100-meter breast stroke and bronze in the 200-meter breast stroke in 1992.
The club currently holds 23 national age-group records, and in 1994-1995 had more than 100 National Top 16 rankings.
Besides Stephens, the club has two other coaches, Tom Heimes, who has been with the program 10 years, and Keith Schertle, who has been on board for three.
Stephens has been involved in the North Baltimore Aquatic Club from the beginning, but in 1990, he decided to jump into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. He bought Meadowbrook and has spent the last six years turning it into a year-round facility.
Now there are an Olympic-sized, 50-meter outdoor pool and a 50-meter indoor pool. Stephens says he knows of no other swim coach-owned club in the country with its own 50-meter indoor pool.
In fact, 50-meter pools are so rare in the United States that more than 50 percent of the U.S. Swim Team will not have had unlimited use of one for training before the Olympics.
"It's taken every dollar we could make or borrow," Stephens says. "We've put everything at risk here on the business of swimming and the Olympic dream."
A former competitive swimmer, Stephens is in complete control of his program. He and his words are law. Ask anyone at the club about how things are done there and the answer is nearly always: "It's Murray's way."
Stephens starts his swimmers slowly and builds their endurance and desire until they reach senior status at Level 4. But even at Level 1, his isn't an easy program.
The Botsfords and the Metzlers remember their early days at the club. For Beth, who was 9, the worst part was the repetitious, froglike leaps designed to build leg strength.
"They had to do so many that the next morning she could hardly walk," recalls Elaine Botsford, Beth's mother. "I talked to Murray and he said, 'Let her come in. It will work itself out and the water will help.'
"It made her feel a lot better when we pulled up to the club and the other swimmers were getting out of their cars and none of them could walk either."
Barbara Metzler, Whitney's mother, tells a similar story of initiation to competitive swimming. "I don't remember which day of the week it was when we started at the club," she says, referring to then-13-year-old Whitney and her older sister, Staci. "But I know by Saturday they came home after the morning session and were exhausted. They were told if they could make it back for the afternoon, they should. But they couldn't. They went to bed and slept all day. I'd never seen them so tired."
Because Stephens' program is anything but routine, he has trouble explaining it in pat terms.
"I'm supposed to give a speech to a group in Ohio about our program and I don't know what to tell them," he says. "A lot of people want a model. They want a list, a step-by-step lesson plan. They want to be given something they can look at and be told here are the things to look for.
"But I don't look at things like that. I work with things more from a trouble-shooting or creative approach. It's intuitive, determining what kids need. But it's scientific too. ... We're the experiment."
There are only a few similarities between the swimming paths of Beth Botsford and Whitney Metzler.
Each started swimming because her older sister swam. While Stacie Botsford still swims competitively, Staci Metzler gave up the sport after swimming for a time with the University of %J Maryland team.
Both Beth and Whitney's dads swam as teen-agers.
And both girls came to the NBAC after swimming elsewhere. Beth was swimming with a Towson club. She was spotted by the NBAC at a summer meet and invited to join the program. Whitney was swimming in Pennsylvania. When her coach moved away, she had to look for a new program that would challenge her. She found the NBAC.
But from there, the girls' paths diverge. In fact, their swimming careers are almost diametrically opposed.
For every easy stride Beth has made or every record she has set, Whitney has had a hurdle to overcome.
Five days before she was to leave for the 1995 Senior Nationals, she was in a car accident. She hit her head and suffered whiplash.
"I remember being in the emergency room of the hospital and the doctor was saying no sports for two weeks," Barbara Metzler says. "I explained her situation and told him that really wasn't an option. He said in five days it would probably be OK, but that if she experienced nausea or blurred vision she should see a doctor at once."
At that meet, Whitney placed a respectable ninth and won her consolation heats. But she'd expected to win, or at least come in second or third.
Also last year, when 26 girls qualified for the Pan Pacific Championships, Whitney was 27th.
As a 15-year-old, she was supposed to go to Paris and be on the National Junior Team. She came down with mononucleosis and missed the trip.
At age 14, at her first Senior Nationals, she was disqualified on a technicality -- for dropping one of her shoulders while executing a turn.
"If something is going to happen, it's going to happen to Whitney," says her mother.
That's not to say she came out of nowhere to make the Olympic team. Over the past three years she has been among the top three or four performers in the country in her event and last year ranked among the top 15 in the world.
Her berth on this year's Olympic team seems a balancing of the scales. She made it, in part, because Kristine Quance, the 400-IM finalist and favorite, was disqualified on a technical error in the preliminaries at Indianapolis this spring. Still, Whitney had to earn her spot with a rally in the third leg of the 400-IM. She made up four seconds with her breast stroke to finish second behind Allison Wagner of the University of Florida.
"The last 50 meters of that race, I was in so much pain," says Whitney. "But I saw that there was only one person ahead of me and I wasn't going to let up. I couldn't even feel my legs at the end."
Comebacks are among Whitney's strengths. "It's an analogy of her swimming career," says Stephens. "Whitney has had to claw her way from behind and beat her way to the top. She's very mature and if given the chance will make the race hers. A half-stroke or two strokes behind, she becomes very competitive."
Beth, on the other hand, has set records from day one. Her mother recalls going to see her swim in a meet at Rutgers University. Beth had been swimming competitively for only a short while. After her event, coach Tom Heimes came over to the grandstand and yelled to her mother: "Beth just set a NAG record."
"I didn't know what that was," says Elaine Botsford.
It was a national age-group record -- the first of Beth's career, but not the last. She has set them routinely at every level.
"Beth hasn't had Whitney's experience," says Stephens. "She started hot and has remained hot. She's probably the only
swimmer in the country who has won her age group every year since she was 9 years old. Even people like [swimming stars] Tracy Caulkins and Janet Evans didn't start breaking records until they were 11."
For swimmers who start very young, there usually is a burnout period. Kevin Botsford, Beth's dad, used to swim in college. He knows how much hard work goes into a successful swimming career.
"Initially, I didn't want her to go to [NBAC]," he says. "I thought it was too big a commitment. I thought there were lots of other things in life to do -- soccer, basketball, studying. I didn't think it would be enjoyable for her to do it all the time.
"I think the surprising thing is that she's been so dedicated so long -- 9-10, 11-12, 13-14 [national] age-group records."
Even now, says Elaine Botsford, "we think one morning she'll wake up and say, 'Let's play soccer.' "
But Beth says she "hates sweating." And swimming, she adds, has never been hard. "I've always liked it," she says. "It's not as easy as it looks, but the rewards are so great. You get so much out of it -- making the Olympics, meeting new people. And I think it teaches you to be tough and builds your determination."
It took Beth a long time to decide whether she wanted to try for the Olympics. Stephens says there were many long conversations with her before she finally decided going to the Games was something she wanted to do.
"I went through a period, before I finally decided to go for the Olympics, where I doubted myself," says Beth. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Before the trials, everyone is asking, 'Are you going to the Olympics? Are you going to the Olympics?' And then, it's 'Are you going to win?' And you tell them you've done a 'best-time' and it's 'Well, OK, but did you win?' I didn't know if I could put up with it.
"I just needed to work on how to relax myself and not think about anything or anyone else."
Stephens, who swam for Loyola High School (where he now teaches English) and Loyola College, says part of his job has been to find the reasons Beth and Whitney want to achieve. They aren't adults, he reminds. They're children and children have different dreams and different inspirations.
"If the only reason to get in a pool was to make the Olympic team, there would be very few people in the pool," he says. "It's like studying Latin. Why do it? What good is it? Well, it gives you a vocabulary base. But there is no value except the struggle to learn. It's an educational process. Same with swimming. It provides a leg up on people who haven't put themselves through it. And you're doing something you can do for the rest of your life."
Stephens says kids want to achieve to get a champion's hat, a bar on their sleeve, or a medal to put in their room. Or to see their names in the rankings in Swimming World magazine.
Some of those reasons apply to Beth, who has always viewed swimming as simply fun. But now that she has made the Olympic team, she can't wait for the challenge of a lifetime. "I'm so excited to be part of the whole Olympic experience," she says. "I can't wait! I know I have to go faster. I definitely want a medal. Gold is the goal."
For Whitney the drive to achieve runs deep. "I started dreaming about the Olympics when I was 9 years old, as soon as I started competing and doing well," she says. "I remember telling my parents how much I wanted to go to the Olympics and I guess it's been in the back of my mind every time I competed.
"And now, I'm going. But I don't think it has really hit me yet. It's like being on another national team going to another meet. But it's the biggest meet ever."
There is no special treatment for Olympians at Meadowbrook or in the Botsford and Metzler households.
Stephens says he has lost swimmers who were disgruntled because they weren't given their own lanes to swim in or put on a pedestal.
At home, both Whitney and Beth have chores and are expected to get them done. A visitor to their homes sees no swimming trophies or plaques in their living rooms.
Elaine and Kevin Botsford and Barbara and Don Metzler have not let their swimming daughters dominate their lives, but both couples have had to change some routines to accommodate the girls' schedules.
Elaine Botsford leaves her job at the State Highway Administration every day at 2: 15 p.m. to pick up Beth at Garrison Forest School and take her to swim practice.
And Barbara Metzler, a former teacher, admits she got herself elected tax collector in her Pennsylvania town and began a notary public/messenger business just so she could set her own hours and be able to take her children to swim practice 45 minutes away. She and/or her daughters have been making the trip by car every day since 1991.
Both Beth and Whitney rise at 5: 30 many mornings and don't see home again until after 7: 30 many nights. But despite those seven to 10 workouts over seven days, the girls have still found time for life outside the swimming pool. They defy the impression a one-dimensional athlete who does nothing but prepare for a chance at Olympic gold.
Whitney has a boyfriend, Jon Grim, whom she met in trigonometry class last year. "We go hiking and line dancing and to the movies," says Jon. "She's a lot of fun to be around, and I'm so glad that she hasn't changed at all since she's made the Olympic team."
Whitney and Jon went to her prom in May and to her graduation this month from Dallastown High School (he graduated last year). But Jon isn't going to the Olympics. Whitney has given an extra ticket she got to her best friend, Kim Lynd. Jon says he understands.
"They've been best friends since they were little girls," he says. "I can relate to that. Besides, I think I'll have a better seat in front of the television with a bunch of Whitney's friends."
Beth also keeps busy away from the pool. There are sleep-overs at friends' houses, movies (she likes thrillers) and time for looking after her collection of Elmo dolls (he's a "Sesame Street" character).
Beth is also into fashion. She likes to keep her long fingernails painted and dusted with sparkles. She likes dark-colored
clothing and has a fondness for bellybutton rings.
"I've pierced my bellybutton a couple times," she says, adding she did it herself. "But it's grown closed again now, so I'm planning to wait until I can get it done professionally."
That may be a while. Like Whitney Metzler, Beth Botsford will be tied up for a while. The Olympics await.
A gold medal, they both say, would be the ultimate.
SANDRA MCKEE'S last story for the magazine was on Joe Gibbs, race-car owner and former Washington Redskins coach.
The NBAC's Winning Ways
Olympians associated with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at the time of their competition:
Theresa Andrews, 1984, gold medal in 100-meter backstroke, gold medal in 400-meter medley relay
Patrick Kennedy, 1984, eighth in 200-meter butterfly
Anita Nall, 1992, gold medal in 400-meter medley relay, silver medal in 100-meter breast stroke, bronze medal in 200-meter breast stroke
Whitney Metzler, 1996, will compete in 400-meter individual medley at this summer's Games
Beth Botsford, 1996, will compete in 100-meter backstroke and DTC 200-meter backstroke at this summer's Games
Olympians who trained with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club but relocated before time of their competition:
Wendy Weinberg, 1976, bronze medal in 800-meter freestyle
Ricardo Aldabe, 1984, eighth in 200-meter backstroke
Jill Johnson, 1992, 10th in 200-meter breast stroke
Greg Burgess, 1992, silver medal in 200-meter individual medley; 1996, will compete in 200-meter individual medley at this summer's Games
Casey Barrett, 1996, will compete in 200-meter butterfly at this summer's Games
Pub Date: 6/23/96