They were to gather at Saturday’s Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame induction to share hugs, swap tales and take bows for having brought a national title to Baltimore in 1994. Back then, a septet of girls from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club — some still in middle school — stunned their college-age rivals to capture the women’s team title at the Phillips 66 National Championships.
The victory by those youngsters, against more than 200 older teams, caused a big-time splash. Moreover, the girls did it without winning a single individual event, chalking up points with runner-up finishes in race after race after race.
Now, 24 years later, that NBAC team was among those due enshrinement in a ceremony at the Mt. Washington Conference Center in Baltimore.
Led by Anita Nall (17), the eldest, and Beth Botsford (12), the youngest, the champs were full of moxie and muscle, with a boundless love of swimming and an unflagging buoyancy, both in the pool and out. A close-knit crew, they dyed their hair before competitions, painted their nails and waxed their eyebrows en masse. Once, they tried to pierce each other’s ears, with mixed success.
Such antics belied the depth of their devotion to the sport.
“Age-wise, we were young, but the level of commitment we put into everything was very grown-up,” said Botsford, a backstroker who went on to win two gold medals in the 1996 Olympics. “Our training was intense, sometimes three workouts a day. How fast we raced each other in practice set us apart.”
Two years ago, Botsford found the team’s dog-eared workout book from 1994. Reading it was a trip.
“I thought, holy-you-know-what, that was amazing stuff that we did,” she said. “We accomplished things in practice that college teams don’t do now.”
Though their coach, Murray Stephens, drove them hard, “we had a blast,” said Whitney Phelps Flickinger, then 14. “We were the young’uns, but we were a tough, tough group. My brother, (28-time Olympic medalist) Michael, saw a film of our training sessions and said, ‘I couldn’t have done that.’
“But I never dreaded it, even the three-a-days, because I knew when I got to the pool I’d see the other girls there. I wouldn’t have wanted to go through those times with anyone but them.”
At the nationals, in Federal Way, Wash., NBAC scored 229 points, defeating its closest rival by 46 points. All seven swimmers placed in the top 10 in at least one event, including Whitney Metzler (Tucker), another 1996 Olympian, Brittany White (Watkins) and Melinda Rehm (Olson). The veteran was Nall (Richesson), who’d won a gold, silver and bronze in the 1992 Olympics and who played mother hen to the brood on the road. It wasn’t easy.
“We thought we were complete rebels,” said Tucker, then 15. “Once, at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs (an old Army barracks), there was nothing to do after practice so we scaled the fence and went AWOL to get snacks at a 7-Eleven.”
She returned with a stash of Twizzlers and kiwi strawberry Snapple.
In Colorado Springs, by happenstance, the girls shared a dormitory floor with the University of Michigan men’s swim team — much to their coach’s chagrin.
“Murray did all he could to keep us away from them,” Tucker said. “He took us to every tourist trap around, from the Royal Gorge Bridge to Pikes Peak. We went hiking and white-water rafting. I’d never been so exhausted in my life. I mean, all we ever wanted to do was to play cards in the hallway with those guys.”
Mementos of their victory, the women said, have been tucked away for years.
“It took me almost two decades to realize how incredibly unique that championship was,” said Olson, who was in eighth grade at the time. “Here were seven teens, most who couldn’t yet drive but who were basically on top of the world.”
Six months ago, Olson opened a dusty bin of her medals for her children to use as “pirate’s treasure.” One award she withheld was a second-place medal (400-meter medley relay) from that championship meet.
Holding it, Olson said, “I realized I was part of something special — and proud of it. That team was my family. We spent so much time together, I could have looked at anyone’s big toe and known who she was.”
To this day, however, Botsford is rankled with media coverage of the team’s success, which focused mostly on its youth.
“To win a national championship with no college-age swimmers is pretty spectacular,” she said. “But the novelty of stories like, ‘They’re so young that they don’t really know what’s going on’ drove me nuts. We knew exactly what it took to get to that point. I knew how hard I had to bust my ass every day, and so did the rest.”
Not long ago, Tucker said, her teenage son announced that he’d swum 5,000 yards in one day.
“Mom,” he asked, “how much did you used to swim?”
“Between 8,000 and 10,000 yards every afternoon,” she replied. “And we had fun doing it.”
NBAC repeated as national champs in 1995 with the same lineup, minus Nall. That team was to be honored Saturday as well. Other inductees include Lenore Kight Wingard, of Frostburg, who won Olympic swimming medals in 1932 and 1936, and the Lakewood Swim Club team, a Baltimore mainstay in the 1930s and 1940s.
Also, the Hall of Fame was to award the first Joseph Curreri Maryland Swimming Military Service Medals to the late Joseph Curreri and the late Allen L. O’Reilly. Curreri, who swam for NBAC and Loyola High, was a Special Forces communications sergeant who died in 2007. O’Reilly, another NBAC swimmer, was a Marines sergeant who died in 2004.