Swimming's guppies are tough to judge and even harder to protect. They're teen-agers with bright smiles and brighter futures. But soreness in a knee, a twinge in an arm or a runny nose, for goodness sakes, can sink them before they grab hold of glory in the Summer Olympic Games.
As the coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Murray Stephens has seen the guppies come and go. Theresa Andrews grew up to become a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, others went on to marvelous college careers, and a few were devastated by injuries or bolted the pool to escape emotional traumas caused by overzealous parents.
That's why, in this spring of 1991, Stephens is carefully nurturing Anita Nall, who is, after all, just 14 years old and a ninth-grader at Towson High School. Nall, a powerful 5 feet 5, 123 pounds, may be virtually unknown in Baltimore, but in the world of U.S. swimming she is No. 1 in the 200-meter breast stroke and a potential medal contender at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"Think of it like a wave," Stephens said. "When people's expectations are too far ahead of the wave, then the wave is distorted and loses its power and surge. Any athlete needs to be able to perform and visualize without a lot of external output. Anita is only a kid. She doesn't have to live up to anyone's expectations."
But Nall's abilities are no longer a secret. At the U.S. Open in Indianapolis in December, she won the 200-meter breast stroke in 2 minutes, 30.57 seconds, the second-fastest time in U.S. history. Like it or not, Nall is now among the favorites to win the 200 breast stroke at the Phillips 66 U.S. Swimming Spring National Championships, which begin April 3 in Federal Way, Wash.
"Right now, I just feel like any other swimmer," Nall said.
Nall receives no special treatment at her team's seven-day-a-week workouts at Loyola High School. She works side by side with her North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates, four of whom will join her at the Spring Nationals.
Scott Conley, 19, commutes daily from his home in York, Pa., to Towson, refining his talents in the 200-meter butterfly during practice while building his resume for a college scholarship.
Michael Raley, a 17-year-old Loyola junior, is among the top 200-meter men's breast-strokers in U.S. history and is seeking a career breakthrough in Seattle.
Amanda White, 15, a Dulaney High School sophomore, is a double threat as a runner and swimmer. A state cross-country champion, White will compete in her first senior nationals in the 100- and 200-meter breast stroke.
Brandy Wood, 17, a Dulaney senior, is a strong performer in the 400-meter individual medley and is trying to nail down a scholarship at Texas, Florida or Southern California. She is in the sport for the long term and says 1996, not 1992, will be her prime Olympic year.
Stephens divides his time among the swimmers, but Nall is clearly special. Even while trying to play down her achievements, Stephens can't help gushing about her potential. And he is a coach who rarely displays emotion or overstates the abilities of his swimmers.
"If we don't screw it up, Anita will break the world record by this summer," Stephens said.
Nall dropped into Stephens' pool 1 1/2 years ago after her father, John, a manager for Social Security, received a transfer to the Woodlawn office. Back in her hometown, Harrisburg, Pa., Nall began swimming at age 5 and three years later began establishing herself as a top area swimmer at a local YMCA, winning a drawer-full of regional and national age-group medals.
"The first time I saw her swim, I knew she was special," Stephens said. "She has exceptional arm strength. Virtually no girls have that. She also has a real solid kick. No one else puts it together like she does."
What Nall needed was time in a pool. Since coming to Baltimore, she has doubled her workouts, from 4,000 to 8,000 yards a night. Her stroke is unmistakable. Nall's head pops out of the water like a jack-in-the-box, and she lifts her body.
Because of the early-morning conditioning and dinner-time swimming, Nall says, she has "little time to do stupid stuff." A straight-A student most of the time, Nall is having trouble lifting her grade in biology.
"I'm working on it," she said.
The practice time finally yielded a sensational performance in December in Indianapolis. Unheralded before the U.S. Open, she finished the meet signing the first autographs of her life. Nall won the 200-meter breast stroke in 2:30.57, just off the U.S. record of 2:29.58, set by Amy Shaw in 1987.
"I never felt so good in my life in that race," Nall said. "I got ahead and didn't notice the time. I just kept going. At one point, I thought I was going too fast. But I kept getting stronger."
She'll need to be even stronger and faster to break the world record of 2:26.71, established by East Germany's Silke Hoerner at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. But remember, Nall is just 14, with a teen-ager's sense of history.
"The records are just numbers," she said. "I mean, I don't know if I can get a world record. I hope so, though."