Swimmer completes laps

A swimmer completes laps at the Meadowbrook Pool, home to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Olympians Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff became elite swimmers. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / August 7, 2008)

"He's a visionary, ahead of his time," says Theresa Andrews, who became Stephens' first Olympic gold medalist in 1984. "The best way to describe it is, he develops with athletes a way to think through a situation. He doesn't teach you just to swim fast; he teaches you how to think."

The club cranked out top-notch competitors long before it found a permanent home in Mount Washington, sending at least one swimmer to every Olympic Trials from 1968 on.

Stephens took over the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in 1986. The place had served area swimmers since 1930 and was in sorry shape. In his scant spare time between coaching and teaching English at Loyola High School, Stephens scratched together the money to refurbish Meadowbrook. He believes that time and financial sacrifices were essential to the club's success.

"If you don't have your house up against mortgage deadlines and your kids' education on the line, if you're not committed personally and financially, maybe you're not going to find the best way to make it work," he says. "We gave this our best shot to make the process successful."

The club, which consists of about 200 competitive swimmers, takes on children at ages 7 and 8, after they have demonstrated their gifts at less demanding neighborhood pools. Stephens and his coaches focus more on laying a groundwork of efficient strokes and physical endurance than on immediate racing success for young swimmers. They know that most of their swimmers won't be national champions or Olympians, and they do not dangle such accomplishments as carrots for their pupils.

But NBAC swimmers are expected to swim hard every day of the year and set aggressive goals for improvement. Stephens has always treated success in high-level competitions as a natural byproduct of that process.

"He has a crystal ball," Andrews says. "I've been with him almost 30 years of my life and he makes these predications and they come true. He probably has more tenacity than Michael Phelps. He doesn't go for the comfortable goals, nor does he put out the comfortable goals for his swimmers. And you know that if you swim for him. But he also doesn't put anything out there that he doesn't believe he can't achieve and you can't achieve."

Stephens has never wanted swimmers or parents who view the sport as a casual extracurricular activity. He takes swimmers' improvement seriously and expects them to do the same.

"They are responsible for what they do," he says.

"I think it's real simple to understand why the NBAC has had so many great swimmers," says Kevin Botsford, whose daughter Beth won two Olympic gold medals while swimming for Stephens in 1996. "It's because the expectations are so high. The practices are really hard, they ask a lot of the swimmers, the swimmers make a commitment, and you go from there."

If parents think the club - which costs $1,200 to $2,000 a year depending on the swimmer's level - is too intense for their children, that's fine with Stephens.

"We think we're doing what we should be doing," he tells them. "You should keep doing what you think is right. But if you change your mind in a few years, we'll talk again."

Stephens' wife, Patricia, spotted Beth Botsford in a local pool at age 8 and said she belonged in a serious program. Beth's father, a former swimmer at Towson State, was reluctant to commit her to such a serious schedule. But she wanted it, so he and his wife agreed.

Beth started out learning fundamentals in a group of 30 young children. She wept the first day, because she'd never been asked to swim so much. "I want to quit," she told the coaches. "I want to go home."

Give it two weeks, they told her, and then if it's too much, so be it. She adjusted, but never forgot that the coaches put responsibility for being at NBAC in her 9-year-old hands.

"The choice to swim at a club like that is not one everybody can make," she says. "There's a certain level of expectation, not just of performance but of dedication and commitment. They're not going to compromise their standards, and they're not going to twist your arm to make you stay."

The coaches didn't talk much about winning races. Instead, swimmers strove for personal bests at every meet.

Beth Botsford set a national age-group record at age 9 and in a few years, moved from swimming three times a week to practicing every day. As she joined a smaller group of elite swimmers, Stephens became her coach.

He never minced words if a swimmer wasn't meeting his demands, she recalls, but he was always available to talk - about long-term goals, stroke technique or whatever.

"As high as his expectations were, everything he wanted, he gave back to his swimmers," she says.