Thirty-two-year-old Erin Cahill of Towson, her suit still wet from an early-morning dip, pauses poolside to reflect on the magic of coincidence.
"I didn't know this was where he trained," she says. "I just come in and swim my laps."
Last month, so her story goes, Cahill was watching the world swimming championships from Barcelona, Spain, on television. Lo and behold, she learned that Michael Phelps - the 18-year-old phenom from Rodgers Forge who set five world records at that meet, king of the butterfly stroke, odds-on favorite to go gold multiple times at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens - is a member of Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Mount Washington. This swim club. Cahill's club. The very pool where she's leaving a snail's trail of water on the concrete walkway.
It's a small swimming world.
It's much smaller than Erin Cahill realizes.
Right now Phelps is in the midst of completing a 7,000-meter workout with about 30 teammates from North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which is based at Meadowbrook. They're churning up and burning up nine lanes of the pool, less than 50 feet from the open-swim area where Cahill has spent the past hour leisurely stroking away.
"He's here right now?" she exclaims. Cahill offers up the Myopia Defense: She can't see a thing without her glasses. She could be swimming next to Shamu the killer whale and never know it.
When Phelps is not off traveling the world and smashing records, he can be found most mornings at Meadowbrook, laboring under the watchful eye of NBAC senior coach Bob Bowman. Most club members - with or without their eyeglasses - recognize him, but nobody makes much of a fuss.
"It's about the most multifunctional facility I've ever been around," Bowman says of Meadowbrook. "Everybody seems to coexist fairly well."
Clarke Murphy hits the pool every morning. He's 82 and worked as a summer lifeguard at Meadowbrook in the mid-1930s, back when the pay was 75 cents an hour, back before insurance liability laws did away with the high dive and water slide. The man has seen lots of swimmers, including Olympians Beth Botsford, Whitney Metzler and Anita Nall, come and go. Phelps is a polite, level-headed kid, but Murphy isn't about to go deep-end over him.
"There isn't much excitement because he's busy swimming and we're busy doing what we're doing," explains Murphy. "I just glance at him. I don't watch him on a regular basis."
That might sound blase to outsiders. But understand, there's a deep-rooted culture at Meadowbrook. Michael Phelps didn't drop from the sky a finished product, some strange gift from the swimming gods. He has been frequenting Meadowbrook since he was no taller than a kickboard. Indeed, almost everybody here grew up with the sport, marinated in chlorine. Witness this sign by the pool entrance:
"Meadowbrook requires the use of swim diapers and/or plastic pants on children who are not toilet trained or marginally trained and prone to accidents."
Think these folks are going to come unglued because one of their own might make a big Olympic splash?
Still, prodigious talent is prodigious talent. It commands attention.
"People who say they don't look are lying," says Polly Surhoff, wife of Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff and herself a former top collegiate swimmer. "Why wouldn't you look? It's just this amazing thing in the water."
Marian Nash, 48 and a long-time Meadowbrook member, admits she sneaks peeks whenever she's swimming near Phelps.
"He swims more like a fish than a person," she says, "especially when he's doing the butterfly. It's almost like he was designed to swim in the water."
Humans, of course, generally aren't content to merely look. There's a primal need to protect our self-image. Pride's at stake no matter what the circumstance. If you're playing miniature golf and Tiger Woods aces the windmill on the adjacent hole, you don't want to 10-putt the clown's mouth.
Likewise, these may be merely Meadowbrook practice swims, but you're virtually going fin to fin with a world champion. Michael Phelps knifes through the water like a cigarette boat. Who wants to look like driftwood floating alongside?
Polly Surhoff will crank it up a notch whenever she finds herself swimming in the vicinity of Phelps. So will Jo Anne Broadwater, whose son, Adam, is on the NBAC team. "I kick harder," Broadwater says.
Club member Amy Elias isn't afraid to use what some call the "gutter lanes" close to Phelps. It's not intimidating at all, she insists. To the contrary, it's thrilling. In fact, she sometimes wonders what it might be like to swim head-to-head for real with Olympic Boy. Phelps may want to keep this in mind if he ever gets tired of swimming endless intervals for coach Bowman.
"Wouldn't that be a good way for him to train," says Elias, "to see how many times he can lap the regulars?"