For Phelps, a new pool venture

The Baltimore Sun

Olympian Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, hoping to replicate their athletic success in the world of business, will announce a partnership today aimed at transforming the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington into a world-class training facility.

Their newly formed company, Aquatic Ventures LLC, will own the Aquatic Center and its two 50-meter pools. It will also oversee the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has produced seven Olympic swimmers since it was founded in 1968.

"I think our goals are the same," Bowman said. "We want to offer the finest family-based facility in the state, if not the East Coast. I think what makes it so special is that it can be a unique blend of both, not just an elite training center."

Bowman said the formation of Aquatic Ventures LLC, for now, is related only to the current Meadowbrook facilities. Plans to expand and buy the ice rink next door, a rumor that surfaced during the Olympics when Phelps accidentally mentioned buying a pool during a sleep-deprived interview with NBC's Bob Costas, have not become reality. At least not yet.

The Northwest Ice Rink announced at the end of August that it was closing after 50 years. In a letter taped inside the door of the ice rink on Labor Day, Jackie Eliasberg, chairman of the rink's board and resident agent for Northwest Family Sports Center, said she wanted to "thank our many customers for their support over the years."

"There is really nothing I can say about that," Bowman said. "Would we like to expand the North Baltimore Aquatic Club? Yes, we would. I feel certain that we will eventually. But we haven't moved forward on anything yet. And when we do, I'm confident that we'll have more than one option."

Phelps' and Bowman's personal relationship - which began in 1997 at Meadowbrook when Phelps was 12 years old and Bowman was a newly hired swim coach - has produced more gold medals than any other in Olympic history. But their business relationship has evolved since the pair returned home in August from the Beijing Olympics, where Phelps won a record eight gold medals.

After living and training in Ann Arbor, Mich., for four years, both decided to return to Baltimore after Bowman worked out an agreement to become the North Baltimore Aquatic Club's chief executive officer.

Phelps, suddenly one of the most coveted product endorsers in the United States, expressed interest in making a financial commitment to the facility.

Phelps will be, for the most part, a silent partner in the venture, especially as he begins training again in 2009, and Bowman will run the day-to-day operations of the facility. But the two share a similar vision about changes, expansions and improvements they'd like to make to the property.

The goal will be to turn Meadowbrook into a world-class training facility for Olympic athletes and Olympic hopefuls while also retaining and expanding the role the center plays in the North Baltimore community. Meadowbrook currently has, according to Bowman, more than 1,000 members.

Meadowbrook was constructed in 1930, and its outdoor concrete pool, which holds more than a million gallons of water, has been a Baltimore landmark since. It was purchased by Murray Stephens in 1987, and under Stephens' guidance, it became a fertile training ground for Olympic swimmers Anita Nall, Whitney Metzler and Beth Botsford.

The facility opened a year-round indoor pool in 1995 and, the following year, Phelps emerged as a 12-year-old prodigy.

After training with Bowman, he became the youngest male Olympian in 54 years when he qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the 200-meter butterfly.

"We have a very loyal membership, and they're still here enjoying the facilities," Bowman said. "Our goal now is to bring some new people in. For Michael and I, that means children. That's how it works."

But Meadowbrook is in need of some upgrades, especially if it hopes to attract other professional swimmers from around the country to train with Phelps and Towson's Katie Hoff, who won a silver medal and two bronze medals in Beijing.

"Clearly going forward there are going to be some changes, some of them cosmetic," Bowman said. "Our indoor pool is 13 years old. With our outdoor pool, I think we want to keep some of it the same, because it's the best summer pool in America. But there is some major work [to be done] to that pool because it's 80 years old.

"What we hope to do is continue to expand our camps and instructional opportunities for competitive swimmers of all levels."

Recruitment may also become a priority once the upgrades are undertaken, and that may be where Phelps plays a prominent role.

Bowman said he wants to expand the role of "postgraduate" swimmers at Meadowbrook, the term used for swimmers who no longer have college eligibility but are still training with an eye on making a national team or an Olympic team.

"Right now, it's Katie [Hoff] and I," Phelps said in September. "If we could get more postgrads, people who are training and working toward what we're training to go to, I think that would be the biggest thing.

"One of the coolest things over the last year," Phelps said, "was really being able to have the other guys and girls I trained with in Michigan. That was a big part of my success."


Meadowbrook pool was built in 1930 by the George Morris Co. in Mount Washington. According to the history listed on the Aquatic Center's Web site, in the 1930s "it became a showplace for diving and swimming competitions and exhibitions given by and including such notables as Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is known to have spent some afternoons on Meadowbrook's white sand beaches." In 1944, it was rebuilt after a fire, and in 1972, it underwent another renovation after it was damaged considerably during flooding caused by Tropical Storm Agnes. In 1987, Murray Stephens and his wife, Patricia, who had been renting the pool to train budding national and international swimmers, purchased it and began yet another renovation. An indoor pool opened in 1995. Seven Olympic swimmers have trained at the facility with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club: Theresa Andrews, Patrick Kennedy, Beth Botsford, Anita Nall, Whitney Metzler, Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff. It is also the home facility for Ironman triathlete Joanna Zeiger, a 2000 Olympian.

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