By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune reporter
7:00 PM EDT, July 21, 2014
BALTIMORE — It is a perfect late spring morning. The sun already has dried out the remains of an overnight rain, and the birds are chirping so loudly, they nearly drown out conversation during an al fresco breakfast outside the Whole Foods in the city's Mount Washington neighborhood.
Conor Dwyer is plowing through eggs, potatoes, yogurt, granola and fruit after finishing his first of two daily workouts at the nearby North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where the elite training group includes seven swimmers from four countries who have won an aggregate 27 Olympic gold medals and 37 total medals.
After breakfast, he will go for a nap at the $1 million harbor loft owned by the man responsible for most of those medals, who was absent from the first practice this day to do the photo shoot that would wind up as a cover of ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.
"We don't do much in the house except watch TV and play video games," Michael Phelps will say later.
Yet Phelps, the Baltimore native who has returned to the sport, has become as much a mentor as a host to Dwyer. His influence extends from the Orioles cap that the passionate Cubs fan from Winnetka is wearing to the technique help and racing advice the greatest swimmer of all time willingly provides, even though he and Dwyer compete in several of the same events.
"I was shocked at how much Michael was giving other people tips," Dwyer said. "You don't often see that in swimming."
It is more than a form of noblesse oblige from a man who has won 18 gold and 22 Olympic medals — one of them, the one that made Phelps the all-time Olympic medals leader, from the victorious 800-meter freestyle relay in London on which Dwyer swam the second leg.
"The kid is very talented," Phelps, 29, said of Dwyer, 25, "and he is just starting to realize how much the little things really do add up. He is still new to the scene. It will be cool to see what happens over the next couple of years."
Those two years between now and the next Olympics begin in earnest at the U.S. championships on Aug. 6-10 in Irvine, Calif., where the results will play a major part in qualifying for the 2015 world championships. Dwyer intends to swim the 100, 200 and 400 freestyles and the 200 individual medley at nationals.
Dwyer's career had a late start, took a circuitous route and needed an intervention by the greatest female distance swimmer in history before winding up in the orbit of Phelps, whom the NBAC coach, Bob Bowman, says is "kind of on another planet."
When Dwyer moved in with Phelps a year ago, his family could not help but marvel at the turn of events as they drove his Audi Q5 and clothes to Baltimore.
"We were all nervous to meet Michael at first," said Dwyer's mother, Jeanne. "The whole thing is pretty amazing, really."
The whole thing began when Dwyer was 3 at his grandparents' backyard pool in Wilmette. That is where Jeanne Dwyer taught not only her five children, but also dozens of other North Shore kids to swim.
She was an All-American at Florida State, a sprint freestyler and breaststroker who understood the mechanics of the sport so well, the basics she gave Conor in the 16-yard pool would become a solid foundation for the swimmer he has become.
"My strokes always have been good," he said.
Dwyer seemed such a natural in the water that the gym teacher at Faith, Hope and Charity grammar school in Winnetka always reminded the boy of that when he excelled at another sport. If he scored a touchdown or 20 points in a basketball game, Dennis Stonequist would say, "That's good, but you were meant to swim."
Dwyer would put swimming aside for six years, starting again as a freshman at Loyola Academy, where Stonequist, now the school's alumni director, was the swim coach. It wasn't until his final two years at Loyola that Dwyer dropped his other sports and became serious about swimming.
But growth plate issues with his right shoulder held him back, as did his size. Dwyer, now 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, was 5-11, 135 as a Loyola senior.
"He was so close to quitting as a sophomore because of the injury," Stonequist said. "But he always had this athletic drive in every sport, and I knew if he did get the size and get healthy, he would be really good."
That happened after he went from the University of Iowa to the University of Florida. There, Dwyer found a coach, Gregg Troy, and a competitive environment that turned him from a swimmer who couldn't qualify for the 2009 NCAA meet into the 2010 NCAA men's swimmer of the year and, two years later, an Olympic gold medalist.
Boost from Evans
He got to Florida only because four-time Olympic champion Janet Evans had become a family friend after meeting Conor's father, Patrick, while giving motivational speeches to a company he worked for. Evans would nudge Troy to let Dwyer join an overcrowded summer training group, and the fit was so perfect, he decided to transfer.
"I found out that summer I wasn't pushing myself all the way," Dwyer said. "When I started winning training sets in practice at Florida against guys who were NCAA champions is when my eyes opened, and I realized I could actually do something in this sport."
It wasn't until he left Florida last summer for Baltimore that Dwyer won his first individual medal at a global championship, a silver in the 200 free at the 2013 worlds, while lopping more than a second from his personal bests in the 200 (now 1 minute, 45.32 seconds) and 100 (48.94).
The departure of Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay from Gainesville, Fla., left Dwyer without the kind of post-collegiate training group that had helped him make the 2012 Olympic team in the 400 free (he finished fifth) and the relay. Early last spring, he contacted Bowman, asking if he could join one of the coach's famously demanding, three-week training camps in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"It got me in the best shape of my life," Dwyer said.
While Dwyer was at the camp, Frenchman Yannick Agnel, the reigning Olympic champion at 200 meters, also had contacted Bowman and came to Colorado Springs. Both liked the situation so much, they decided to move to Baltimore.
Bowman had ended his own post-Olympic coaching retirement to help a couple of other swimmers prepare for the 2013 worlds. Suddenly he had the nucleus of an exceptional training group, and Phelps had been talking to him about a comeback that became official earlier this year.
"I realized I did miss it, and I was pretty good at it," Bowman said of his return.
Phelps lends a hand
He asked Phelps about giving Dwyer a place to stay while he got settled, and the two hit it off well enough that they have maintained the arrangement.
When Dwyer was competing at the 2013 worlds, Phelps would text him pointers about turns and splits. This season, he has been helping Dwyer work on the underwater dolphin kick.
Bowman's focus has been on getting Dwyer to lower his head position and change the timing of his breathing. The results this season have been good: Dwyer was the overall men's winner of the Arena Grand Prix series, which earned him one year's use of an $85,000 BMW Active7 hybrid.
"I know a lot of swimmers who were good from 15 to 18 but are done with the sport now," Dwyer said. "Being so new to the sport at such a late age, I keep having more and more fun and getting better and better."
Good enough that Winnetka had Conor Dwyer Day three weeks after the London Olympics, where 40 relatives had come to cheer him on. Among them was his grandfather Jim Dowdle, the former Tribune Broadcasting chief who died earlier this year.
Jeanne Dowdle Dwyer still teaches young kids how to swim in her parents' pool. Many have gone on to swim for Loyola and New Trier.
One has gone on to become an Olympic gold medalist. His development pleases those around him, including the person who said, "It's good watching him grow up to become one of the top men's swimmers in our country."
Spoken just like a mom.
Except those words about Conor Dwyer came from Michael Phelps.
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