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Pool shows ripple effects

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One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

For most of its existence, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club was associated with female swimmers driven to Olympic gold by a taskmaster coach.

The NBAC's deepest roots, however, involve boys, one who nearly drowned in the stream that bisects Baltimore and another playing alongside it at Meadowbrook, one of the city's favorite summer haunts.

Now another has grown into a young man reaching for history at the 2004 Olympics.

No swimmer has had as long an uninterrupted run with the NBAC as Michael Phelps. That's evidence of the merits of the program, a changing sport and the unrelenting standards of the man who has been there since Day One.

Founded in 1968, the NBAC has grown from a team without a home into a rarity. Murray Stephens, the head coach, owns its base of operations, the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center. His team and facility were built on persistence, sweat and little small talk.

Stephens taught his heir apparent that the more important a competition, the more serene a coach must be. Bob Bowman reminded Stephens that post-collegians exposed to the outside world wouldn't necessarily infect the NBAC's ethos.

With 220 members at Meadowbrook and its satellite teams in Harford County and York, Pa., the NBAC isn't the biggest swim team in the region. Ones in Columbia and Towson have similar numbers, and behemoths in the Washington area are nearly five times as large. Other teams in the United States have mined more Olympic gold.

None, however, offers the rigor and scope that could develop dozens of national age-group record-setters, five Olympians and one who is the fastest all-around swimmer ever.

"The attitude is different here," said Marianne Limpert, who in September came to Baltimore to better her shot at becoming Canada's first four-time Olympic swimmer. "I wore a Speedo cap to my first workout. I was told, 'The pro shop's over there. You need to get one of our caps.' I had to get with the program."

Limpert is 31, old by swimming standards, but not as old as the NBAC.

The NBAC way

The NBAC was turning out Olympic gold medalists before Phelps, 18, was born, and people have been cooling off at Meadowbrook since the Great Depression.

The complex in Mount Washington is at the core of a fitness enclave that includes bike shops, an ice rink and an organic grocery, but that zeitgeist isn't new. When Meadowbrook's first pool was poured in 1930, just west of the Jones Falls stream, Norris Field was a hot spot in the lacrosse world.

In 1987, Stephens and his wife, Patty, became the third owners of Meadowbrook. In 1995, they constructed the adjacent Olympic-sized indoor pool, where Phelps trains. On a normal winter day, 400 people will work out there, as homemakers on exercise bikes overlook swim practice. That number can triple in the summer, when families frolic in the million-gallon outdoor pool.

Tim Pierce figures he first swam at Meadowbrook in 1950, when he was 8. He and Stephens were Jesuit-educated when they founded the NBAC, as the latter was three years behind Pierce at Loyola High and then Loyola College.

A retreat's Web site writes that "Jesuit spirituality affirms our potential but also is dedicated to the ongoing, day-in-day-out struggle between good and evil." Stephens has pushed generations of adolescents through pain while the outside world was seeking pleasure.

In swimming, you can't enjoy one until you have experienced the other.

The NBAC's younger founder was also shaped by a scare that occurred around 1916.

"My father was about 12 when he almost drowned in the Jones Falls, down by the mills above the Streetcar Museum," Stephens said. "He took me to swim lessons, but I couldn't deal with the group thing. I was a country boy, and I wasn't used to dealing with the crowd. I was going to know how to swim. He built a pool at our house in Cockeysville."

Before he was 14, Stephens was installing electrical lines and fire alarms in some of the 24 apartment units his father owned. That sense of responsibility is seen when 8-year-olds from the NBAC report to the starting blocks without adults holding their hands.

Pierce is in his 37th year on staff at Loyola High. When he took an administrator's job in 1984, he left the NBAC to Stephens. It was on its way to being one of the nation's top teams. Two decades later, its quality doesn't jibe with its quantity. The NBAC will send at least a dozen swimmers to the U.S. Olympic trials in July. You can count the qualifiers from other area clubs on one hand.

Master and commander

Phelps, who has set world records in four events and is a threat to win seven gold medals at the Olympics in August in Athens, Greece, followed his two sisters into the NBAC. Emily Goetsch, another national champion, followed a more typical progression, from a neighborhood summer team to a year-round club, then on to the NBAC.

"We thought it would be better in terms of intensity, and we've never had a second thought," said Scott Goetsch, Emily's father. "There's more of a focus on doing well than having fun, but the kids tend to support each other more than they do on other teams, despite rampant stories about a place like NBAC being too competitive."

Its younger training groups aren't as demanding, but in the NBAC's Senior Elite Group, most have international aspirations and absences are rare.

Stan White, a linebacker for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, pulled his three children out of the NBAC after a dispute with Stephens over the practices White's oldest missed to explore her potential as a distance runner. Now, Amanda White Pagon, in training for the U.S. Olympic trials in the triathlon, is doing her swimming workouts with an NBAC group.

The NBAC asks its swimmers to sacrifice. Stephens demands even more from his assistants. He employs seven, who work with varied age groups, abilities and locations. None is married, but neither was Stephens when he logged decades of 90-hour workweeks. Like his father, he started a family at 42.

Stephens, 57, is admittedly not good at relaxing. He is a voracious reader and likes to explore on his sailboat. He hasn't seen Master and Commander, but Stephens has read the books that inspired the film. He could critique this article with a red pencil, as he taught English at Loyola High for 28 years.

His powers of persuasion are considerable. Stephens led an overthrow of a local Amateur Athletic Union official in the 1970s, and convinced an injured 15-year-old that she was the best in the world in 1996. Known in Baltimore for his Olympic champions, Stephens is recognized nationally as a leading advocate for club coaches. He used to be a gadfly; now he sits on USA Swimming's board of directors.

As Pierce kept his focus on the Loyola High boys in the 1970s, Stephens found a niche coaching women. Theresa Andrews in 1984 and Beth Botsford in 1996 won Olympic gold in the 100-meter backstroke. Botsford aggravated a shoulder injury in Atlanta, where Stephens was on the U.S. coaching staff. Four years earlier in Barcelona, Spain, he had no access to Anita Nall, the world-record holder in the 200 breaststroke who won bronze.

"The cord needs to be cut at some point," Nall said, "but the Olympics aren't the time or place to do that."

Dennis Pursley, the national team director at the time, said, "Murray lets you know when he's not happy with a situation." Stephens said his complaints led to a more liberal staffing policy, which got Bowman on the Olympic pool deck with Phelps in 2000, but he remains perturbed over the issue.

"Why would I want to get over it?" Stephens said. "It was wrong. We still have Michael Phelps. Anita can't repeat it."

Stephens 'believed in me'

Andrews changed high schools and households to join the NBAC in 1978, when she was 16. Five years later, she postponed her senior year at the University of Florida because Stephens offered her the best chance at the Olympics.

"Not many people believed in me," Andrews said. "Murray did, but he wanted to know why he should take me back."

Training 10 or 11 times a week and sometimes logging more than 50 miles, Phelps doesn't train substantially different than did Andrews. She was a rarity; Stephens felt college swimmers wouldn't submit to his demands.

"One of Murray's strengths is recognizing when it's time to let something go," Bowman said. "When Murray was coming up, swimmers went to college and then they were done. Now, people stay in the sport longer. If we're going to be competitive, we have to meet the needs of older swimmers."

Phelps' readiness to move up to the Senior Elite Group coincided with increased family and business demands on Stephens. He moved aside so Bowman could maintain his relationship with Phelps and now coaches a younger group.

Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother, is the president of the NBAC. She said, "This is not a parent-run club," and Tom Himes learned in 2002 that Stephens is still plotting the course.

"I was one of the few people who would disagree with Murray," said Himes, fired by Stephens after 17 years as one of his assistants. "He was always looking to get better, but I was disappointed I was never told why [he was fired]. They probably think I bad-mouth them, but it's a first-rate organization. No one in the world could have done for Michael Phelps what Bob Bowman has done."

Bowman has gotten lucrative offers from other American club teams, with the understanding that he would bring Phelps. The swimmer has raised the bar for his competition and attracted accomplished swimmers, but he isn't viewed as a Pied Piper at the NBAC.

"In some regards, he keeps people away, because they think it's so elitist," Bowman said. "People call our swim school and say: 'I don't want my kid to be like Michael Phelps, but I want him to learn how to swim.' Murray said he's like a character in the Harry Potter books, 'he whose name cannot be spoken.' Michael brought some kids in, but now it's viewed as a place where the standards are so high."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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