Whenever Pat Kaplan studies her son Chris on the block before a swimming race, she smiles ruefully.
"I see those short arms and short legs and think, if only he were four inches taller," Pat Kaplan said.
Chris is, "when he stands up straight," all of 5 feet 8. It is tall enough to be a star on the Loyola team that will try to make it two in a row over Calvert Hall tomorrow in the rematch of the MSA swimming powers.
Kaplan was a big contributor in the first meet Jan. 12, with firsts in the 200-yard individual medley and 100 backstroke and strong performances in two relays. In a meet the Dons won by two points, they couldn't have managed without him.
"Chris doesn't have the God-given talent," Pat Kaplan said. "He's not tall and thin like senior national-level swimmers. He has none of those gifts. He's a plugger."
Plugger. Loyola coach Murray uses the same word to describe Kaplan. "He attends virtually all workouts and works steadily," Murray Stephens said. "He's never way out in front or looks like he's head and shoulders above the others. His consistency and dedication are the difference. Ultimately, that's the measure more than talent."
Kaplan was born in Texas, where his mother noted that it was a common practice for parents to "waterproof" their toddlers by throwing them in a pool and watching them pop to the surface. When the Kaplans moved to Reston, Va., and Pat tried that with Chris at a YMCA in Washington, it didn't work as anticipated.
"He was the only one who screamed and cried the whole time," she said.
When he was 4, the Kaplans enrolled Chris in the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, an age-group team based at Loyola High and also coached by Stephens.
"I was hyper," Kaplan said. "My parents were looking to get me out of the house. I couldn't play football or lacrosse at that age, so they started me swimming."
The Loyola and NBAC star and model swimmer at the time was Pat Kennedy, who in 1984 finished eighth in the 200-meter butterfly in the Los Angeles Olympics.
"I looked up to him," Kaplan said. "It was an honor to be in the same pool. I was 8 when he went to the Olympics, and I can remember he was in the outside lane. Because of that, we couldn't always see him on our TV screen."
Kaplan spent a year away from NBAC, swimming for a club in Northern Virginia, coached by John Flanagan. Flanagan, like Stephens, is surprised that Kaplan has fared so well.
"We didn't think Chris was junior nationals material, yet last year he was 13th in the 1,650 freestyle," Stephens said. "Now he's almost senior nationals material. He's done 15:48 for the 1,650 freestyle, only 14 seconds away from qualifying for the senior nationals. There are no high school boys in this area who are senior national qualifiers in any event."
A senior, Kaplan is bound for the Naval Academy, in keeping with what has become a Loyola and NBAC tradition. In the past 10 years, Stephens has sent a stream of swimmers to Navy, including Julia Austin, Carolyn Wisner, Bob Ball, Mike Ruehring and John Papavasiliou.
"I've wanted to go to Navy since I was 10," said Kaplan, who has been accepted. "I know a lot of Loyola grads who went there. My aunt and uncle used to sponsor mids."
After the upset victory over Calvert Hall, a poster appeared in Loyola's cafeteria that read: "Way To Go, AquaDons." It had taken some career bests to achieve the win, including two by Kaplan.
His fastest time in the 200 IM had been 2:02.38. He ripped off a 2:01.57. His best in the 100 back was 56.4. He turned in a 56.06.
Tomorrow, Kaplan knows, he will have to do it again.
"We'll have to do even faster times if we want to win," he said. "The meet's at their place and they'll be waiting for us, really psyched."