For more than 25 years, Barbara Bellamy has spent her weekends coaching and running swim meets in Howard County. At the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League All-City Championship on Saturday at the Phelps Luck pool, the 53-year-old Columbia resident coached for the last time. Now, Saturdays belong to her.
"It was a little hard at the end of the meet [when] all the kids lined up to give me a hug with tears in their eyes," Bellamy said. "I feel emotional but OK. I'm ready to move on."
Several current CNSL coaches, all of them coached by Bellamy at some point, honored her with a plaque at the championship.
"She's definitely a legend in the swim community," said Donna Elshafei, 43. "She was coaching when I was swimming."
Bellamy first coached for the Columbia Aquatics Association in 1978. In 1981, she began coaching for the CNSL with the Owen Brown team, becoming league coordinator five years later.
While she served as CNSL coordinator, the Columbia Aquatics Association's year-round team ceased to exist, so Bellamy founded the Clippers, a competitive winter team. For the next 11 years, she oversaw the expansion of the Clippers to more than 400 athletes.
This season, Bellamy coached Elshafei's children, Adam, 7, and Sabrina, 10, in her seventh and final summer with the Clemens Crossing Cyclones.
"She's an outstanding coach," said Sabrina. "She's only strict because she wants us to work and do our best."
While challenging her swimmers, Bellamy never loses her sense of humor. At the conclusion of Saturday's meet, she swam the annual coaches' relay feet first. The goofy swimming style, in which swimmers propel themselves with their arms, brought back memories for former Phelps Luck coach Brittany Whiteford, 19, and her mother, Zulma Whiteford, CNSL supervisor.
Brittany "went 'Oh my God, she's doing feet first! We used to do that with her all the time,'" said Zulma.
"The coaches who swum for her were in the relay with her and they were all bragging that they were better at feet first, but [it was] not even close," Zulma said. "She whipped them."
Pointer's Run coach Mark Mazzarella, 21, said of Bellamy, "She was my first coach when I joined Clippers when I was 7. I saw what she did with everybody, and it really made me want to get involved with what I'm doing now. I wanted to do something similar - help out the kids and be someone they look up to."
As a fellow coach, Mazzarella asks her advice on drills and incorporates techniques she emphasized.
"I'm more of a teacher than a coach," Bellamy said. "I like teaching the younger kids the mechanics of swimming."
Bellamy's knowledge and experience set her apart from most CNSL coaches.
"She knows very specific things to make your stroke better," said Elshafei.
Bellamy would write a card with suggestions and praise for every swimmer. "Barbara could have a heat full of Clippers and write something constructive about each one," said Brittany Whiteford.
Bellamy also helped her swimmers succeed by teaching necessary skills years in advance. "She will start working on [flip turns] when they're 8 or 9, so by the time they're [required to do them at 11], they can do them," Elshafei said.
The All-City Championship, which began Friday afternoon, awarded only individual prizes among the approximately 1,000 participants. Normally, Bellamy picks a lineup, often placing swimmers in events where they would likely score points for the team instead of in their favorite strokes. Her achievements, however, have little to do with winning or losing.
Said Clemens Crossing Cyclone Christopher Gloth, 18: "The most important thing I've learned from her is to push yourself no matter what you're doing."
Many swimmers grew up with Bellamy's guidance.
"She got me started. She was really my foundation of the love of the sport," said Harper's Choice coach Dan Russell, 22.
Said Gloth: "The best memories that I have are the morning practices. She'd joke around between hard sets of swimming."
Brittany Whiteford said she will never forget how excited she was to receive the Supersonic Swimmer award as a child.
"You would get a little T-shirt, and Barb would give a little blurb about you," she said. "It was never about who was fastest. It was if you came to practice, did well in school - the whole package."
Bellamy was clearly moved by the surprise presentation Saturday morning. She said that she has gained "patience, compassion, appreciation for a lot of different personalities that the kids come with."
She said she plans to visit the coaches and athletes whom she has influenced so strongly.
"She'll be greatly missed," said Elshafei.