Driving hard to the Games Swimming: Murray Stephens has put Baltimore on the map and two more athletes into the Olympics.

July 15, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Murray Stephens will be very much in his element when he arrives in Atlanta this week. He has coached Olympic swimmers for the better part of the past two decades, and his appointment as an assistant coach for the 1996 Games was long overdue.

His name brings nods of recognition throughout the swimming world, and yet he is relatively unknown here in his hometown -- even though his Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center might be the premier club swimming facility on the East Coast.

This is the O-zone, after all, and soon to be in an NFL frenzy, too. But before the Orioles head down the stretch and the Ravens kick off their first season at Memorial Stadium, Stephens and two of his swimmers will try to put Baltimore in the international spotlight.

Backstroker Beth Botsford, 15, is considered a solid medal contender and Whitney Metzler, 18, will compete in the 400-meter individual medley, hoping to continue a tradition of Olympic excellence that has made the North Baltimore Aquatic Club -- the nonprofit arm of the Meadowbrook complex -- one of the most revered club teams in the nation.

The NBAC is the No. 1 age-group swimming club in the United States -- based on the number of ranked swimmers in the various age groups -- and holds 23 national age-group records.

It has produced 1984 two-time Olympic gold medalist Theresa Andrews and 1992 gold medalist Anita Nall.

All of this, seemingly, by the force of one man's will to preserve club swimming and establish an aquatic beachhead outside of the Sun Belt.

Stephens, 50, has been coaching in Baltimore for nearly 30 years. He swam competitively in the 1960s for Loyola College before embarking on a dual career -- teaching high school English and teaching young swimmers how to compete against the rest of the world. If he is demanding of his students and athletes, it should be understood that he drives no one as hard as he drives himself.

The Meadowbrook complex was a deteriorating, 56-year-old pool club when Stephens took it over in 1986. Stephens has spent the past 10 years raising and borrowing money (about $1.4 million) to transform it into perhaps the most complete private coaching facility east of the Mississippi.

It was a massive undertaking for a man who still teaches full time at Loyola High School and coaches the high school swim team, but Stephens clearly is from the if-you-want-something-done- right-do-it-yourself school of management.

The NBAC is run no differently. There is a governing board, but Stephens is the last word. He is the engine that drives an athletic machine that has altered the geography of U.S. swimming.

"There used to be the assumption that if you wanted to be into swimming, you had to be in California," Stephens said. "I thought, if I had envisioned being a good swimmer, would I have had to move to California . . . or could we develop a program where people could say, 'No, you don't have to go to California. You can do that in North Baltimore.' "

The center of the swimming universe in the 1960s was in Santa Clara, Calif., with legendary coach George Haines. In the '70s, Mark Shubert created a world-class environment in the affluent Southern California suburb of Mission Viejo. Stephens wanted to prove that it could be done anywhere.

"And I think we've done that," he said.

From past to omnipresent

From his office on the second floor of the aquatic center, Stephens can see virtually everything that is going on.

There is an aerobics class on the upper floor. Middle-aged businessmen swim laps below. Youngsters frolic outside in the noonday sun. Stephens, his desk covered with things to do today, tomorrow and -- from the look of it -- every day until the

2000 Olympics, notices a couple of kids doing flips at the shallow end of the outdoor pool and picks up the phone.

Nothing gets past him. He is the owner and operator of one of the best-known private swim clubs in the nation. He is one of America's foremost club swim coaches. He is preparing for his first berth as an Olympic coach, yet he isn't too busy to address a minor safety problem.

If this seems unusual, say those who work or train under him, then you don't know Murray Stephens.

"He's not a coach who overlooks things," said Metzler. "He's going to tell you what you are doing wrong. If you can't handle criticism, you shouldn't be in the sport."

Stephens is a stickler for detail. He is a proponent of good work habits and strict self-discipline. He is decidedly old-school in his coaching technique, to the point where his gruff, my-way-or-the-highway approach occasionally may ruffle some parental feathers or rankle the swimming establishment.

And, of course, he's very, very successful.

He does not apologize for his uncompromising poolside manner, but he is sensitive about his taskmaster image. He works his swimmers hard. He expects a lot from them. He doesn't countenance a lot of teen-age foolishness. And yet, he is very much in tune to the individual needs of every member of his team.

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