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In their parents' wake

The Baltimore Sun

Columbus, Ohio -- B.J. Surhoff has not changed that much since his days as an Orioles outfielder and first baseman. He is still stoic and quiet, careful with his words and wary of attention.

He still has the thick and tanned forearms of a furniture mover and the strong and confident chin of a leading man, even though he always seemed more comfortable in a supporting role during his baseball career.

But instead of spending his afternoons honing his smooth left-handed stroke at Camden Yards, Surhoff, now 43, can often be found poolside in places like this, the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion at Ohio State, sitting alone up in the bleachers.

The smell of chlorine is thick in the air, but you can also sense the nervous energy of a proud father as Surhoff scans the deck for a glimpse of his oldest son, Austin, or his two daughters, Kendall and Jordan.

The swimming life has long been a family affair for the Surhoffs, who still live in the Baltimore area, even though B.J. retired from baseball in 2005. His wife, Polly, is originally from Ellicott City, and the Surhoffs liked the area so much that B.J. - when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2000 - commuted for two years before re-signing with the Orioles in 2003.

Austin (17), Kendall (14) and Jordan (13) swim for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and each has shown some of the same competitive drive that both their parents possess. (Polly was an elite college swimmer at North Carolina and finished fourth in the breaststroke at the 1984 Olympic trials.) Swimming, too, has been a blessing for the Surhoffs' middle son, Mason, who is autistic but still competes in Special Olympics competitions.

This meet, part of the Toyota Grand Prix Swim Meet Series, was Kendall's and Jordan's first chance to compete in a major event that included some of the world's best, and it was clear their father was more nervous than they were. He looked on from the bleachers, stone-faced, occasionally fiddling with his cell phone, trying to remain somewhat anonymous in the thin crowd.

"It's really nice to watch them do their own thing," Surhoff said. "It's nice that they have each other to lean on, too, if things don't go well. ... They've been in the water since they've been born, basically."

Surhoff acknowledged that he doesn't make it to many baseball games these days, which he says is just fine. He'll catch the Orioles on television from time to time, but you're a lot more likely to find him at the pool, quietly encouraging his kids.

"I think a lot of times, kids are more resilient than parents," Surhoff said. "If they have a bad day, they just move on. It's a lot harder on the parents watching."

Kendall and Jordan - both blond, bubbly teenagers with warm personalities - are as outgoing and silly in interviews as their father is guarded and cautious.

Their baseball memories have more to do with ballpark food than home runs, although both vividly remember watching their father on television when he tore his ACL playing for the Atlanta Braves.

"I remember my mom was calling, saying 'What's going on?' " Jordan said. "But they wouldn't let Dad talk to her."

The Surhoff girls learned to be tough at a young age.

Kendall, a former gymnast, helped steer them toward swimming after she broke her ankle bouncing on the family trampoline. When she sprained it again on the same trampoline months later, a line was drawn.

"My mom wanted me to pick a non-injury-prone sport," Kendall said.

"It's was kind of my fault. I double-bounced her," Jordan interrupted, grinning.

"So I dragged her to swimming with me," Kendall said.

Now, both girls spend a majority of their weeks juggling schoolwork with swimming practices. Kendall's best events are the 100 and 200 freestyle, plus both individual medleys, while Jordan is a strong breaststroker. They attend different schools because Jordan is dyslexic, but both said they expected to cram in a bunch of homework in between sessions at the pool.

"I'm at the point where I have to write a lot of essays," Kendall said. "I think Jane Eyre is probably my favorite book so far. It's very 'feminist movement.' "

It's hard not to wonder about both girls' athletic potential. Could one, or both of them, be the next Katie Hoff? After all, Hoff's mother was a college basketball player. Neither is there yet, but both are improving quickly. It's something the coaches at NBAC acknowledge, but also wisely try to downplay.

"It's not really a topic we ever have at the pool," said Scott Armstrong, an assistant coach at NBAC who works with Kendall. "We're going to measure them based on their own achievements. But it's a fact. It's something they're going to have to deal with. They need to be proud of it, too. It would be a shame if they weren't. And I think they are proud."

Surhoff is certainly proud, though you won't see him show it outwardly. And while he mostly wants to see them enjoy themselves, he knows the expectations that might follow them. Those expectations already followed his son Austin when he played baseball.

"People wanted to compare him to me, but not me when I was 12, me when I was already a major leaguer," Surhoff said. "And some people can be really mean about that."

Mostly, though, it's just been fun watching them compete, Surhoff said.

"They've worked really hard," he added. "But there is a long road ahead if they want to be good."

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