Pool shows ripple effects

Swimming: Michael Phelps and a wave of other elite athletes benefit from the hard work that has built the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

January 26, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

For most of its existence, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club was associated with female swimmers driven to Olympic gold by a taskmaster coach.

The NBAC's deepest roots, however, involve boys, one who nearly drowned in the stream that bisects Baltimore and another playing alongside it at Meadowbrook, one of the city's favorite summer haunts.

Now another has grown into a young man reaching for history at the 2004 Olympics.

No swimmer has had as long an uninterrupted run with the NBAC as Michael Phelps. That's evidence of the merits of the program, a changing sport and the unrelenting standards of the man who has been there since Day One.

Founded in 1968, the NBAC has grown from a team without a home into a rarity. Murray Stephens, the head coach, owns its base of operations, the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center. His team and facility were built on persistence, sweat and little small talk.

Stephens taught his heir apparent that the more important a competition, the more serene a coach must be. Bob Bowman reminded Stephens that post-collegians exposed to the outside world wouldn't necessarily infect the NBAC's ethos.

With 220 members at Meadowbrook and its satellite teams in Harford County and York, Pa., the NBAC isn't the biggest swim team in the region. Ones in Columbia and Towson have similar numbers, and behemoths in the Washington area are nearly five times as large. Other teams in the United States have mined more Olympic gold.

None, however, offers the rigor and scope that could develop dozens of national age-group record-setters, five Olympians and one who is the fastest all-around swimmer ever.

"The attitude is different here," said Marianne Limpert, who in September came to Baltimore to better her shot at becoming Canada's first four-time Olympic swimmer. "I wore a Speedo cap to my first workout. I was told, `The pro shop's over there. You need to get one of our caps.' I had to get with the program."

Limpert is 31, old by swimming standards, but not as old as the NBAC.

The NBAC way

The NBAC was turning out Olympic gold medalists before Phelps, 18, was born, and people have been cooling off at Meadowbrook since the Great Depression.

The complex in Mount Washington is at the core of a fitness enclave that includes bike shops, an ice rink and an organic grocery, but that zeitgeist isn't new. When Meadowbrook's first pool was poured in 1930, just west of the Jones Falls stream, Norris Field was a hot spot in the lacrosse world.

In 1987, Stephens and his wife, Patty, became the third owners of Meadowbrook. In 1995, they constructed the adjacent Olympic-sized indoor pool, where Phelps trains. On a normal winter day, 400 people will work out there, as homemakers on exercise bikes overlook swim practice. That number can triple in the summer, when families frolic in the million-gallon outdoor pool.

Tim Pierce figures he first swam at Meadowbrook in 1950, when he was 8. He and Stephens were Jesuit-educated when they founded the NBAC, as the latter was three years behind Pierce at Loyola High and then Loyola College.

A retreat's Web site writes that "Jesuit spirituality affirms our potential but also is dedicated to the ongoing, day-in-day-out struggle between good and evil." Stephens has pushed generations of adolescents through pain while the outside world was seeking pleasure.

In swimming, you can't enjoy one until you have experienced the other.

The NBAC's younger founder was also shaped by a scare that occurred around 1916.

"My father was about 12 when he almost drowned in the Jones Falls, down by the mills above the Streetcar Museum," Stephens said. "He took me to swim lessons, but I couldn't deal with the group thing. I was a country boy, and I wasn't used to dealing with the crowd. I was going to know how to swim. He built a pool at our house in Cockeysville."

Before he was 14, Stephens was installing electrical lines and fire alarms in some of the 24 apartment units his father owned. That sense of responsibility is seen when 8-year-olds from the NBAC report to the starting blocks without adults holding their hands.

Pierce is in his 37th year on staff at Loyola High. When he took an administrator's job in 1984, he left the NBAC to Stephens. It was on its way to being one of the nation's top teams. Two decades later, its quality doesn't jibe with its quantity. The NBAC will send at least a dozen swimmers to the U.S. Olympic trials in July. You can count the qualifiers from other area clubs on one hand.

Master and commander

Phelps, who has set world records in four events and is a threat to win seven gold medals at the Olympics in August in Athens, Greece, followed his two sisters into the NBAC. Emily Goetsch, another national champion, followed a more typical progression, from a neighborhood summer team to a year-round club, then on to the NBAC.

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