Being wet behind the ears can't stop golden Botsford ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 23, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- Not that Beth Botsford is young or anything, but how many Olympic gold medalists spend their post-race interview denying they collect Sesame Street dolls?

"I don't!" Botsford squealed.

Too bad.

One of those Elmo dolls she posed with for a recent Sun profile would have looked great with a medal around his neck.

Where will Botsford put the medal?

"I have no idea," she said, giggling.

How does she think Baltimore will respond to her victory?

"I have no idea," she repeated. "I'm just so excited right now."

She looked so happy on the victory stand, all fidgety and giggly, bursting with youthful energy.

Her mother, Elaine, is the one who grew more emotional, the one who buried her face in her hands, bursting into tears.

Beth just completed ninth grade at the Garrison Forest School. She has a cat named Santiago, a dog named Poochie. She was born during the '80s, for crying out loud.

Yet there she was last night, just two months after her 15th birthday, becoming the first American woman to win gold at the Centennial Games.

The anthem played, the flag rose and Baltimore's newest Olympic hero stared at a sign that said, "We love you Beth."

"I was like, 'Wow!' " Botsford said.

First Theresa Andrews, then Anita Nall, now Botsford.

Maybe Mayor Schmoke should try a new slogan:

Baltimore, the city that swims.

"We're respectable," deadpanned Murray Stephens, the man who built this unlikely dynasty at his Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Mount Washington.

The gold-medal swimmers are supposed to come from Florida or California, places with warm climates, palm trees and outdoor pools.

But Stephens, coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, has transformed the city into a veritable swimming factory, and never mind those winter blizzards.

On the day four-time gold medalist Janet Evans failed to qualify for the finals of the 400-meter freestyle, it was a kid from Timonium who lifted the entire team by winning the 100-meter backstroke.

Botsford is 14 years younger than Angel Martino, the U.S. bronze medalist in the 100-meter freestyle, 10 years younger than Whitney Hedgepeth, the woman she edged for the gold last night.

The two embraced in the water, embraced outside the pool and embraced again on the victory stand. To think, Hedgepeth just completed a job as a sixth-grade teacher. Botsford is only a few years older than Hedgepeth's students.

Who would have known watching them compete and then celebrate at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center?

The cameras kept flashing, dozens of cameras lighting up the night, and the two passed in front of the stands, carrying an American flag as the familiar "U-S-A" chant pierced the muggy air.

Heady stuff, but Botsford has never known much else. She began winning age-group championships at 9, two years ahead of where former champions Evans and Tracy Caulkins started.

She never was a candidate for burnout.

She just liked to win.

"People would say, 'Well, you're good now, but when you get older, you'll just burn out, be one of those age-group kids who never does anything,' " Botsford recalled.

"Someone said that to me four or five years ago. I still remember that. It still sticks in my mind. If anything, I wanted to prove that wrong. That's not the kind of swimmer I am.

"If I was good when I was little, I'll swim faster when I get older."

Her time last night was 1 minute, 1.19 seconds, a personal best. Stephens believes she can get under a minute. Right now, the 200-meter backstroke -- the event she swims in Thursday -- is her better race.

Botsford could leave these Games with three medals, the same number Nall won in 1992. But Nall's gold came in a relay -- she took silver and bronze in her individual breaststroke events.

The difference for Botsford might have been the presence of Stephens. He's an official U.S. coach now, unlike in '92, when he traveled to Barcelona, but lost contact with Nall, who was 16 then.

"Anita just never relaxed," Stephens said. "We were never able to talk. The telephone system was not very good. Although the security here has gotten a little bit tight, in terms of being able to see her family and friends, at least the telephones work.

"I don't talk to her very much. We don't sit down for hours and hours. We might have spoken for seven minutes. But I try to get to the point."

Lest anyone think Stephens is just engaging in self-promotion, Botsford immediately agreed that she benefited from their chats.

"I'm willing to admit that," she said. "I sort of took advantage that he's here. He was there when I needed to talk. It definitely helped me a lot."

And now her life will change forever.

Her mother, Elaine, is a computer programmer for the State Highway Administration. Her father, Kevin, works for PaineWebber in Hunt Valley.

Beth's future?

"I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up," she said. "I don't want to stick with one thing. I'll go about the deal, see what's out there, have a couple of jobs maybe."

She has time to think about it.

"This is the best thing that's ever happened to me," Beth Botsford said.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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