Record-setting Anita Nall races to No. 1 in the swimming world


April 11, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

The plane bringing U.S. swimming's freshly minted star back to Baltimore hadn't landed when word of her feat came over the public address system at Towson High School.

A freshman named Anita "Hall," the announcement said, had been named the top performer at the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Spring Nationals over the weekend in Seattle.

Hall? Not quite. Anita Nall, whose 15th birthday is still more than three months away, broke the American record in the 200-meter breast stroke and came within 37/100ths of a second of the world mark in winning the event in 2:27.08.

Even if everyone didn't know how to spell her name, Nall was congratulated by friends and teachers when she returned to school Tuesday. At home, the phone didn't stop ringing.

"We got calls from people we hadn't talked to in 10 years," said Anita's mother, Marilyn Nall. "They had seen the race Saturday night on TV and her photo was in the Harrisburg paper."

In the space of an hour the other night, said Anita, "My three best friends from Harrisburg called -- Chrissy, Dannielle and Adrienne. And Mike, who was in my sixth-grade class."

Nall has been here only since August 1989, training under North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Murray Stephens. For four years before that, her coach was Ed Fraser, a Pennsylvania State Police captain who coaches the Harrisburg East Shore YMCA team.

"The people here are ecstatic," Fraser said by phone from Harrisburg. "One young swimmer told me, 'Just think, I used to swim on a relay with Anita.' "

To Fraser, Nall is "special." She already was No. 1 in the country in the 50- and 100-yard breast stroke in the 11-12 age group when he took her to the YMCA nationals in Orlando, Fla.

"At 12, she was the youngest of the 1,489 swimmers in the meet, but one of the fastest in the breast stroke," Fraser said.

"At that age, of course, a lot of kids are really good. But Anita had such a work ethic and determination. I saw it in her eyes. It was something I had rarely seen in 30 years of coaching.

"She refused to be denied," Fraser said. "She got on the block knowing she would win. So young, but totally focused. In practice, she trusted us and did precisely what she was told."

When Anita's father, John, was transferred by Social Security to Baltimore, it was a traumatic time for Anita. The Nalls and Frasers considered allowing her to remain in Harrisburg and live in the bedroom vacated by the Frasers' daughter who was in college.

"But I couldn't give her what she needed," Fraser said. "Only two hours a day in the water and no land program. I knew she needed a stronger program, and I couldn't recommend anyone more highly than Murray and NBAC."

Fraser told Stephens about Nall's times, but the NBAC coach couldn't assess her potential until he saw her strokes and studied her background and personality. She first opened Stephens' eyes in an intra-squad meet a month after she arrived in Baltimore.

"She did a 1:17 for the 100 breast, which is doggone good,"

Stephens said. "Without any formal racing that summer, with little training, it was quite good."

During Nall's transition, Fraser visited her every other week, watching practice at NBAC, talking to Stephens, taking her to lunch. Soon, Anita was showing Fraser the card tricks she learned from a neighbor, and she was introducing him to her new friends. After three months, she settled in.

Nall began swimming at the age of 5, following her two sisters -- Jen, now 19, and Kim, 21 -- to a summer club in Harrisburg. Her father saw her potential in golf, gymnastics and tennis, too, but he knew, to excel, she would have to stick with one sport. On her own, she abandoned the others to swim.

Almost amazed, the Nalls watched her progress.

"She's never gone backward in her times," John Nall said. "It seemed like she dropped a second or two every meet. Marilyn and I would look at each other and say maybe she'd break the world record. Naw, not our Anita!"

Since last August, Nall has risen from No. 39 to No. 1 in the world. Well before that, she began receiving Christmas and Halloween cards from colleges -- Texas, Stanford, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Southern Cal.

"I guess people in swimming saw this coming," Nall said, referring to her dramatic improvement.

It is not unprecedented for a girl so young to be a world-class swimmer. At the Seattle meet, Stephens was talking to now-retired George Haines, who produced one national championship team after another from 1969-75 as coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club.

"George says this is the way we used to do it, with kids like Tracy Caulkins," Stephens said. "At 13 or 14, make them the best in the world. Girls are physically mature enough to become world class at a young age."

Nall is 5 feet 5 1/2 , 123 pounds and swims a staggering 70,000 yards (almost 40 miles) a week. Stephens considers her a "major force" in swimming. No longer does the East German sports machine dominate swimming.

The world record of 2:26.71 in the 200 breast stroke, which Nall came within 37/100ths of a second of eclipsing, was set by East Germany's Silke Horner during the 1988 Olympics. On the all-time list, Nall's time ranks second only to Horner's. The East Germans not only had generous government support but have since admitted their performances were aided by illegal medical supplements.

"Several coaches pointed out that Anita's 2:27.08 was probably the fastest ever swum -- legally," Stephens said. "It goes to show what clubs with little six-lane pools right here in provincial Baltimore can do when the international playing field is level."

Anita Nall's 1992 Olympic chances? Stephens just answered that.

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