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Driving hard to the Games Swimming: Murray Stephens has put Baltimore on the map and two more athletes into the Olympics.

Murray Stephens will be very much in his element when he arrives in Atlanta this week. He has coached Olympic swimmers for the better part of the past two decades, and his appointment as an assistant coach for the 1996 Games was long overdue.

His name brings nods of recognition throughout the swimming world, and yet he is relatively unknown here in his hometown -- even though his Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center might be the premier club swimming facility on the East Coast.

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This is the O-zone, after all, and soon to be in an NFL frenzy, too. But before the Orioles head down the stretch and the Ravens kick off their first season at Memorial Stadium, Stephens and two of his swimmers will try to put Baltimore in the international spotlight.

Backstroker Beth Botsford, 15, is considered a solid medal contender and Whitney Metzler, 18, will compete in the 400-meter individual medley, hoping to continue a tradition of Olympic excellence that has made the North Baltimore Aquatic Club -- the nonprofit arm of the Meadowbrook complex -- one of the most revered club teams in the nation.

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The NBAC is the No. 1 age-group swimming club in the United States -- based on the number of ranked swimmers in the various age groups -- and holds 23 national age-group records.

It has produced 1984 two-time Olympic gold medalist Theresa Andrews and 1992 gold medalist Anita Nall.

All of this, seemingly, by the force of one man's will to preserve club swimming and establish an aquatic beachhead outside of the Sun Belt.

Stephens, 50, has been coaching in Baltimore for nearly 30 years. He swam competitively in the 1960s for Loyola College before embarking on a dual career -- teaching high school English and teaching young swimmers how to compete against the rest of the world. If he is demanding of his students and athletes, it should be understood that he drives no one as hard as he drives himself.

The Meadowbrook complex was a deteriorating, 56-year-old pool club when Stephens took it over in 1986. Stephens has spent the past 10 years raising and borrowing money (about $1.4 million) to transform it into perhaps the most complete private coaching facility east of the Mississippi.

It was a massive undertaking for a man who still teaches full time at Loyola High School and coaches the high school swim team, but Stephens clearly is from the if-you-want-something-done- right-do-it-yourself school of management.

The NBAC is run no differently. There is a governing board, but Stephens is the last word. He is the engine that drives an athletic machine that has altered the geography of U.S. swimming.

"There used to be the assumption that if you wanted to be into swimming, you had to be in California," Stephens said. "I thought, if I had envisioned being a good swimmer, would I have had to move to California . . . or could we develop a program where people could say, 'No, you don't have to go to California. You can do that in North Baltimore.' "

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The center of the swimming universe in the 1960s was in Santa Clara, Calif., with legendary coach George Haines. In the '70s, Mark Shubert created a world-class environment in the affluent Southern California suburb of Mission Viejo. Stephens wanted to prove that it could be done anywhere.

"And I think we've done that," he said.

From past to omnipresent

From his office on the second floor of the aquatic center, Stephens can see virtually everything that is going on.

There is an aerobics class on the upper floor. Middle-aged businessmen swim laps below. Youngsters frolic outside in the noonday sun. Stephens, his desk covered with things to do today, tomorrow and -- from the look of it -- every day until the

2000 Olympics, notices a couple of kids doing flips at the shallow end of the outdoor pool and picks up the phone.

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Nothing gets past him. He is the owner and operator of one of the best-known private swim clubs in the nation. He is one of America's foremost club swim coaches. He is preparing for his first berth as an Olympic coach, yet he isn't too busy to address a minor safety problem.

If this seems unusual, say those who work or train under him, then you don't know Murray Stephens.

"He's not a coach who overlooks things," said Metzler. "He's going to tell you what you are doing wrong. If you can't handle criticism, you shouldn't be in the sport."

Stephens is a stickler for detail. He is a proponent of good work habits and strict self-discipline. He is decidedly old-school in his coaching technique, to the point where his gruff, my-way-or-the-highway approach occasionally may ruffle some parental feathers or rankle the swimming establishment.

And, of course, he's very, very successful.

He does not apologize for his uncompromising poolside manner, but he is sensitive about his taskmaster image. He works his swimmers hard. He expects a lot from them. He doesn't countenance a lot of teen-age foolishness. And yet, he is very much in tune to the individual needs of every member of his team.

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"He's a hard coach, but he's a great person," Metzler said. "He's like a father. When he finds out you did something wrong, it's like you disappointed your dad. Like a dad, he'll love you as long as you're doing your best. He doesn't judge you on whether you get a medal or not."

If he has a reputation for being difficult, it is because Stephens has been unwilling to become a sensitive, '90s guy. He grew up at a time when the coach was the coach and it was more important to be consistent than cuddly.

"It seems like the media, if they can't write that this man is the nicest man, the most grandfatherly person, then there's something wrong with that," Stephens said. "If I was judging a program, I would ask, 'How are they performing?' and if the answer is good, 'Why?' If not, then you ask, 'What's the problem? Is the coach too nice or is he too hard?' "

Stephens may never be accused of being too nice, but his program works and his athletes -- by and large -- do not complain. The most popular T-shirt among the NBAC crowd features the cartoon drawing of a man with his head wedged in a press and the caption: "Go ahead. Give it a turn. I work better under pressure."

Tough love

Stephens is intrigued by the evolution of coaching technique. He came from the old school, but he is a keen observer of the new one. The difference, he said, is not so much the coaching as it is the attitude toward discipline in modern society.

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"I think it goes back to what I would define as the football coach mentality," Stephens said. "The theory is if you rag on someone, you can get someone to respond. They'll try to prove you wrong. I think we still see that approach in football.

"It has only been in the past decade that the media and psychologists have begun to talk about the negative impact of abusive behavior. I think there can be a negative impact because of that. But in former days, people were mentally tougher. They expected the coaches to yell at them. Kids would go home and say, 'The coach said I was fat and slow,' and the parents would say, 'Well, he's the coach. You'll have to work harder.' "

World-renowned gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi has come under criticism for allegedly using such harsh measures to motivate -- some might say terrorize -- the young girls he tries to mold into Olympic champions. Stephens said that kind of technique is inappropriate for young athletes, but it is common among Central European coaches in a variety of sports, and it does get results.

"I don't know Karolyi, but it appears that he uses the Central European mode of training," Stephens said. "I've seen a lot of other coaches just like that. When Anita [Nall] went to Colorado to work with [stroke coach] Josef Nagy, that's the way he coaches. I used to be more exhortative. I used to put more verbal pressure on people than I do now. But it was funny when Anita went out there. It was a struggle, but she liked being challenged. I tend to think there are times when that can only lead to a stronger character."

Nall had reached a plateau in her preparation for the Olympic trials, so Stephens suggested that she go to the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado and spend several weeks perfecting her mechanics with Nagy, a Hungarian stroke specialist who never has been known to stroke an underachieving swimmer. By all accounts, she made great progress during three weeks of JTC intense training, but still fell short of a berth on the Olympic team.

"There are some elements of society that think the boot-camp approach is totally and utterly wrong," Stephens said. "I don't believe that, but I do believe that it doesn't belong with 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds and, if at all, sparingly with teen-agers. But obviously, there are a lot of men walking around this country who are proud of their military heritage. That's where they got the sense of discipline in their lives.

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"There are people who are going to think that's not appropriate. Our coaches here, if there are ever moments when we have to use the tough-guy approach, I don't apologize for those moments."

Botsford, who has spent six years in the NBAC program, said she doesn't remember many. She has progressed from 9-year-old age-group phenom (under NBAC age-group coach Tom Himes) to Olympic medal hopeful (under Stephens) without seeing the side of Stephens' coaching regimen that outsiders sometimes ask about.

"I find that the people who say that and think that don't know," she said. "They are either people who don't swim at North Baltimore or who don't know Murray. You won't hear people here saying that.

"If Murray yells at you, and there are some days like that, 99 percent of the time, it's 'I know you can do better than that.' He's demanding, but only because he wants you to be the best that you can be. I've had people come up to me and say, 'I've heard that Murray throws chairs,' or Murray does this or that, but I've been with him three years and I've never seen that.

"People think of Murray and they think, that's the mean coach from North Baltimore. Not, that's the guy who developed all those great swimmers. He deserves more credit than that."

Pub Date: 7/15/96


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