By Kevin Van Valkenburg
November 8, 2008
What you don't realize, until you hear the stories, is that it's actually true.
"When you're putting down concrete for a pool and you cut your hand, you look down and see your blood going into it," Stephens said yesterday, reminiscing about one of the many upgrades he made to the facility. "It means a lot more to you when that happens."
With yesterday's announcement that Olympian Michael Phelps and coach Bob Bowman have formed a company, Aquatic Ventures LLC, and purchased the business side of Meadowbrook and North Baltimore Aquatic Club, it marks the beginning of a transitional period in Stephens' life and for the landmark facility.
For more than 20 years, Stephens has been the man behind Meadowbrook's steady growth, its role in the community and its reputation as a training ground for Olympic-caliber swimmers. He realizes, though, that the time is right for someone else to continue the steady march forward.
He's not disappearing. His deal with Phelps and Bowman includes a long-term lease for the Meadowbrook property, which means Stephens will continue to own the land and the two pools. But the gruff, straight-talking 59-year-old said he feels the time is right for the torch to be passed to Bowman.
For the first time in many years, Stephens - who guided the swimming careers of Olympians Theresa Andrews, Anita Nall, Beth Botsford and Whitney Metzler - can focus on his love of coaching again. He also hopes he can spend more time with his four teenagers: Reilly, 19; Kerry, 17; Jesse, 15; and Henry, 13.
Stephens, in addition to running Meadowbrook, taught English literature at Calvert Hall and Loyola for 30 years, and for much of his career, he put in 70 hours a week between school and the pool.
"I'll be happy if Michael and Bob decide to make this a permanent situation," Stephens said. "And I'll make some adjustments for the facility if they decide to do something else. This gives me a respite to have a little more time with my family."
Stephens, who grew up in Baltimore and has lived in Cockeysville for 47 years, has an intensity to almost everything he does, but he did share a few wistful smiles yesterday while talking about his lengthy time at Meadowbrook, which he purchased with his wife in 1987.
Bowman and Phelps have expressed interest in making some cosmetic upgrades to the facilities - though no formal plans have been worked out. Phelps' representatives didn't respond to a request for comment yesterday. Whatever their plan eventually becomes, it's unlikely they'll have to fight the vicious uphill battles Stephens did in the early 1990s, when he wanted to construct Meadowbrook's second indoor pool, where Phelps did much of his training in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Because the facility lies within a 100-year flood plain, cutting through the red tape to get a building permit was exhausting. Stephens estimates he spent six figures in lawyers' fees. When he finally got the proper permits in 1993, Stephens served as his own general contractor, shuffling in different plumbers, electricians, and builders until he could get exactly what he wanted. In the end, he did a lot of the work himself, bleeding into the project along the way.
"I came to believe that saying: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he said. "I thought, well, if I can get through this, I know there aren't going to be too many people to compete with, because they'd have to be as crazy as I am to do this. And as patient. There is no doubt there is a degree of satisfaction to having a little more traction and gravitas now."
Aside from a few aesthetic changes, it's unlikely Meadowbrook will be much different in the months and years to come.
"I think it will be the same," said Eve Rummel, who spoke as she was loading her two kids into her minivan after a session in the pool yesterday. "I was just talking to some people inside and they said it's not going to be any different. That's good. I love the atmosphere here. I've always felt so welcome."
Rummel said she has been coming to Meadowbrook since she was pregnant with her daughter, Siora, who is now 4. Her daughter takes swimming lessons there, and her son is enrolled in Meadowbrook's "Get Wet" program, where kids learn to stick their faces under the water for the first time.
"One of my daughter's friends almost drowned recently, so that made me realize how important it was for her to learn to swim," Rummel said.
One of the reasons Bowman and Phelps wanted to return to Meadowbrook was the chance to work with kids again. Stephens quickly understood he had found a kindred spirit in Bowman when he persuaded the coach to come to Baltimore more than a decade ago.
They have similar work ethics and interests in the world. Both are, in many respects, Renaissance men. Bowman studies classical music composition in college; Stephens writes poetry in spare time and watches the History Channel. Both are political junkies who pack their schedules so tight, they beat the sunrise out of bed. Bowman even lived in one of Stephens' houses when he first moved to Baltimore.
"I knew him, but we hadn't spent much personal time together," Stephens said. "We worked well together, got along, and he began to take on more responsibility. And now he has all the responsibility."
Stephens pauses, waits a full beat, and then smiles.
"Well," he says, "almost all the responsibility."
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