Stephens' drive puts swimmers into gear OLYMPICS

July 31, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

You wouldn't know from the outside that the Meadowbrook Swim Club is anything more than the name suggests. Even inside the gates, there is little to indicate that the Mount Washington facility is housing some heavy-duty dreams these days.

Walk past the wading pool where the preschoolers are splashing happily. And, if you can, get away from the ear-jarring noise of the workmen's jackhammers putting the finishing touches on the state-of-the-art indoor addition. Imagine, for a moment, that there are several members of the 1996 Olympic swimming team in your midst.

In fact, you don't have to imagine.

They will do it for you.

"The Olympics were always a goal," said Beth Botsford, a 14-year-old who has been competing here for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club since she was 9.

Said Whitney Phelps, who at 15 is in her seventh year with NBAC coach Murray Stephens: "You have to work extremely hard. You can't just expect to make it."

This is not merely a spiel of dreams belonging to Stephens and his swimmers. Phelps has good reason to expect to be in Atlanta next summer, having cracked the top 10 in the world in the 200-meter butterfly. So does Botsford, who won the 200 backstroke at the spring nationals earlier this year. And so does the team's most celebrated member, Anita Nall.

Their dreams, as well as those belonging to many of their NBAC teammates, are starting to be played out, with the buildup of national meets along the road toward the Olympic trials next March in Indianapolis. One of the most important meets will take place this week, the Phillips 66 National Championships beginning today in Pasadena, Calif.

This week's meet could be most vital to Nall, the former phenom who broke the world record in the 200 breaststroke at age 15 and is now in the midst of a comeback that she hopes ends with a victory in Atlanta. She will be challenged in California by a local favorite, Amanda Beard, 13, of Irvine, Calif.

"I don't want to be watching the Olympics on TV," said Nall, 19.

That's why Nall is back in Baltimore working with Stephens after spending several months with her first coach in Harrisburg, Pa. That's why Whitney Metzler has followed Nall to Baltimore from her home in York, Pa. That's why Phelps, Botsford and Jennifer Lears, 16, a long distance ocean champion now trying to convert her talents to the 400 and 800 individual medley events, have spent nearly half their lives working with Stephens.

That's why Theresa Andrews left Annapolis during the early 1980s to train with Stephens at Loyola High School for two years and why she came home during summer vacations from the University of Florida to swim for the NBAC. "I knew that if I were to have any chance of going to the Olympics, I had to stay with Murray," said Andrews, who would win two gold medals in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Self-imposed pressure

The words and picture on the back of the T-shirt Stephens is wearing seems to sum him up well: Showing a man with his head squeezed in a vise, it reads, "Go ahead. Give it a turn. I work well under pressure." With Stephens, the pressure seems mostly self-imposed.

Who else would try to squeeze another 60 hours into everything that Stephens already did before he took over at Meadowbrook? But for the past eight years, he has owned and managed the club. For nearly three decades, Stephens, 49, has taught English and coached the Loyola High swimming team.

And, for the past few months, Stephens has been overseeing the addition of some 18,000 square feet that will bring the total at Meadowbrook up to 30,000 square feet overall, including a half-acre of water. Considering the estimated $1.4 million cost of the renovation, this could be a real-life "Waterworld," with Stephens playing the Kevin Costner role.

"It would be nice not to have our lives on the line," Stephens said of him and his wife, Patty, who earlier this month gave birth to their fourth child, all of them 6 or younger.

But it is in the role of the highly successful and often outspoken coach of the NBAC that most in the country's swimming community know of Stephens. He has helped produce a couple of Olympic champions, not to mention scores of nationally ranked swimmers at the senior and age-group levels. He hopes this week will be the first significant step in making his team a big factor in next summer's Olympics.

"The numbers game at the senior nationals is very much a game," Stephens said recently. "Teams sign on college people just to say they have 15 to 20. The only thing that matters is how you perform. We will outscore most of the teams there. I would say there's not one club in the country that has seven or eight national caliber swimmers who aren't on some kind of scholarship."

Though the NBAC has produced its share of world-class swimmers -- until Nall, the most prominent were Andrews, who won the 100 backstroke and was on the winning 400 medley relay team, and another 1984 Olympian, Pat Kennedy -- Stephens also has produced his share of critics.

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