It was the fifth day of swimming competition at the Tokyo Olympics, and Tom Himes was worried about ... T-shirts?
Specifically, Himes, the head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, needed to make sure his teenage swimmers had the correct swag for the upcoming Maryland state championship meet.
“This is the stuff I deal with,” he said, grinning from beneath his bushy gray mustache as he combed through the plastic-wrapped garments in a nondescript office just off the pool deck at Loyola University Maryland.
For most of the past 30 years, the head coach of NBAC would have been intimately interested in the Olympics and the progress of the club’s latest star, whether that was Beth Botsford, Anita Nall or Michael Phelps. But these are different times for the 54-year-old institution. There’s no Olympic swimmer competing under the NBAC banner (though gold medalist Chase Kalisz and silver medalist Allison Schmitt are alumni). That era effectively ended when Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, decamped for Arizona in 2015.
NBAC sent just one swimmer to the U.S. Olympic trials this year, and the club’s athletes no longer train at the Meadowbrook Swim Club in Mount Washington, where Phelps and all the other stars honed their strokes.
All of that said, the 64-year-old Himes evinced no gloom as he discussed the current state of affairs at Maryland’s longtime Olympic factory. With multiple practice bases and a renewed focus on training younger age groups, NBAC is soldiering on, winning plenty of races and nurturing robust hopes for the next five years.
Paul Yetter, who trained Katie Hoff for the 2004 and 2008 Olympics at NBAC, is back in the fold as coach of the team’s oldest, fastest swimmers.
“It’s still NBAC, and it’s bigger than any of the parts,” Himes said. “We’re doing just fine.”
Himes was particularly proud of the way NBAC endured the coronavirus pandemic, spending $65,000 on propane tanks to heat the pool at Springlake Swim Club in Lutherville so the club’s athletes could swim outside in the dead of winter. On the most frigid mornings, parent volunteers would show up at 5:30 a.m. to shovel snow off the pool deck and chip icicles off the starting blocks. Himes pulled out his cell phone to show pictures of his swimmers, standing atop mounds of snow in their suits.
“The club has been around for 54 years, but I have to believe the way we got through that was as impressive as anything we’ve ever done,” he said.
Kiera Branon’s three sons all swim for NBAC, and she recalled mornings when the thermometer in her car read 19 degrees. Nonetheless, she heard few complaints about the 4:50 a.m. alarms or the intense chill as swimmers left the comfort of the 79-degree water at the close of practice.
“A lot of clubs went under; a lot of clubs wouldn’t even entertain this,” Branon said. “But NBAC is a club where you do what you need to do to get through it. You don’t back down. It wasn’t like just a handful of them did it; everyone did it.”
Springlake is one of several training centers NBAC relies on now that the club is no longer headquartered at Meadowbrook. That list includes the pool at Loyola Maryland, the pool at Goucher College and the Coppermine 4 Seasons complex in Hampstead.
Kevin Botsford, whose daughter, Beth, won two Olympic gold medals for NBAC and who now serves as president of the club’s board, said he’s optimistic NBAC will partner with a developer to build its own dedicated facility within the next five years.
The breakup with Meadowbrook severed NBAC from part of its legacy, but Himes and Botsford said the club is adapting well to its new reality.
Management at Meadowbrook, which is still owned by NBAC founder Murray Stephens, gradually reduced the lanes and time slots available to Himes and Yetter. The last NBAC swimmers left the premises in late April.
“All I can say is that it wasn’t our decision,” Himes said.
“It was a business decision so that we can expand our own aquatic offerings and better serve our members who loyally stayed with us through the pandemic,” wrote John Cadigan, Meadowbrook’s general manager, in an email.
The club’s mission has changed along with its physical home. When Himes rose to the top job in fall 2016, he vowed to restore NBAC’s focus on developing younger athletes. No longer would the club recruit pro swimmers from other states and countries as it did when Bowman was head coach from 2009 to 2015. That made sense when the goal was to train swimmers such as Phelps, Kalisz and Schmitt to compete for gold medals.
“But I think it got away from what the club was,” said Himes, who first worked for NBAC in 1985 and coached Phelps and a string of other Olympians in younger age groups.
With about 245 swimmers, the club is larger than it was in the heyday of Phelps and other Olympians. Swimmers still have to try out, but Himes is more likely to take a chance on a modestly talented grade schooler who can be trained. He doesn’t want parents to view NBAC as an elitist institution — the New York Yankees of the Baltimore-area swim scene.
“Success in swimming doesn’t mean you’re an Olympian,” said Marci Benda, who swam at NBAC and whose eldest daughter, Caroline, went from the club to the University of Kentucky. “It’s getting kids into nationals, it’s getting kids to swim in college, but I don’t think it’s defined by producing Olympians.”
Botsford, the club’s board president, said NBAC is on sturdier financial ground than it has been in years, despite the loss of revenue streams associated with Meadowbrook. He noted that training Olympic champions is a costly proposition and said the influx of swimmers across a wide range of age groups has improved NBAC’s bottom line.
“I think we end up with a more well-rounded club now, because we probably appeal to more things,” Botsford said. “I think people, maybe in the past, their kids were interested in swimming, but they were like, ‘We’re never going to be in the Olympics, so we don’t belong at NBAC.’ It was never true then, but it’s certainly not true now.”
It’s a delicate line to walk, because many swimmers (and their parents) still show up dreaming of becoming the next Phelps. They covet an ambitious environment.
“Everybody hates the Yankees because they’re the best, right?” said Branon, whose eldest son, Ryan, was NBAC’s lone Olympic trials qualifier this year. “Everybody hates NBAC because they’re the best. You go to championship meets, and year after year, their kids are getting swimmer of the year and finishing first in everything. So clearly, they’re doing something right. And that’s where my kids, my oldest especially, said, ‘I’m tired of wondering what they do every day. I want to be part of it.’”
She’s watched her sons improve enormously since moving from Loyola Blakefield’s club team to NBAC about three years ago.
“You can’t get better coaches in the state,” Branon said.
Don’t get Himes wrong; he and Yetter still want to develop Olympic-caliber swimmers and reap benefits from the attendant publicity. They urge their athletes to look past the competition in Maryland and judge themselves on a national scale. Himes does not shy away from criticizing the lack of ambition he sees in neighboring clubs. Maryland is still talked about as a swimming hotbed because of Phelps and Katie Ledecky, who’s from Bethesda, but only a handful of swimmers actively training in the state qualified for Olympic trials this year.
Yetter said the national and international success of NBAC swimmers has always ebbed and flowed more than casual observers remember. For example, between its successes at the 1996 Olympics and the rise of Phelps four years later, NBAC did not consistently rack up high-profile wins.
“Now, we are going through an ebb,” he said. “But we still have some athletes who have grown up with us winning gold medals, like Chase Kalisz. So I would say we’re still extremely relevant.”
The 45-year-old coach said he would never have returned to Baltimore in 2016 if he did not believe the club could train future NCAA champions and Olympians. He doesn’t much care whether those triumphs happen while swimmers are wearing the NBAC cap or later on.
“I moved back here so that I could continue working toward my strengths as a professional, which is helping produce some of the best swimmers in the U.S. and the world,” Yetter said. “If we go forward five or six years, I think you’ll see that we were laying the groundwork for the development of these student-athletes.”