Where only swimmers' best will do
For Murray Stephens and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, effort is everything
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)
Michael Phelps showed talent early, setting a national record in an under-10 age group, but he was also a hyperactive kid with varied interests. "He wasn't what we'd call hard-core attention focused," Stephens says. He figured that the boy could easily lose interest and become a lacrosse player.
Stephens switched Phelps to a different coach every year, making sure that he picked up different strengths from each. Bowman began working with him in 1997, altering his strokes despite the boy's early success and resistance to change.
It worked. Phelps' dedication soon matched his talent to the point that he would say, "If I'm not in the water for a few days, I'm not the same person."
As Phelps ascended, Stephens stepped aside to let Bowman continue the relationship. It was the beginning of a significant change in the coaching face of NBAC, from Stephens to those he hired and trained.
The transition continued when Hoff moved from Northern Virginia to work with Yetter.
Stephens doesn't seem to mind that NBAC's greatest swimmers were coaxed to the summit by others. He sees a strong thread binding him to Bowman and Yetter.
"Bob's a trained concert pianist. Paul plays the piano and was a creative writing major. I'm a lifetime writing and language teacher, writer and poet," he says. "Are you getting anything here? It's a creative thing."
Indeed, former NBAC swimmers often use the word "creative" when describing the coaches' uncanny ability to spot and explain small inefficiencies.
Stephens' reliance on other coaches makes sense given his overall skepticism about finding a set formula to produce swimming greats.
"We're not locked into a perfect scientific method," he says. "There's always been a lot of experimentation. That is science, really. It's an evolution."
After all the success stories, families move from other states so their swimming prodigies can dip into the waters that produced Phelps and Hoff. Two-time national champion Felicia Lee, 16, moved from New Jersey to work with Yetter. Elizabeth Pelton, who qualified for five events at the Olympic Trials, came from Connecticut.
"They're the best team in the country," says Kathleen Morris in explaining why she moved her three kids from Lewisburg, Pa., two years ago (her husband stayed behind at his engineering job).
"You don't have to question if they know something," she says of Stephens and Yetter. "If you're in the swimming world, you know that they know."
The Olympics have set off a new wave of interest in the club, with families calling to ask about switching from other groups in Baltimore or about moving to town, says John Cadigan, who manages the Meadowbrook facility. More amazing, he says, has been the outpouring of worldwide media attention. The British Broadcasting Corp. called at 1 a.m. yesterday, seeking an interview.
With the club's profile at an all-time high and Phelps and Bowman on their way back to Baltimore, it is hard not to imagine a bigger future. Andrews, who manages the club's endowment, says Stephens has talked of it becoming an East Coast version of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Whatever the specifics, those who have watched NBAC's rise believe that the club philosophy is more powerful than any location or particular batch of talent.
"I think if you took Murray, put him in Billings, Mont., and gave him 10 years," Kevin Botsford says, "he'd give you a few Olympians."
A swimmer was misidentified as Kerry Stephens in a caption to a photo that accompanied this story earlier. The Sun regrets the error.