"We thought it would be better in terms of intensity, and we've never had a second thought," said Scott Goetsch, Emily's father. "There's more of a focus on doing well than having fun, but the kids tend to support each other more than they do on other teams, despite rampant stories about a place like NBAC being too competitive."
Its younger training groups aren't as demanding, but in the NBAC's Senior Elite Group, most have international aspirations and absences are rare.
Stan White, a linebacker for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, pulled his three children out of the NBAC after a dispute with Stephens over the practices White's oldest missed to explore her potential as a distance runner. Now, Amanda White Pagon, in training for the U.S. Olympic trials in the triathlon, is doing her swimming workouts with an NBAC group.
The NBAC asks its swimmers to sacrifice. Stephens demands even more from his assistants. He employs seven, who work with varied age groups, abilities and locations. None is married, but neither was Stephens when he logged decades of 90-hour workweeks. Like his father, he started a family at 42.
Stephens, 57, is admittedly not good at relaxing. He is a voracious reader and likes to explore on his sailboat. He hasn't seen Master and Commander, but Stephens has read the books that inspired the film. He could critique this article with a red pencil, as he taught English at Loyola High for 28 years.
His powers of persuasion are considerable. Stephens led an overthrow of a local Amateur Athletic Union official in the 1970s, and convinced an injured 15-year-old that she was the best in the world in 1996. Known in Baltimore for his Olympic champions, Stephens is recognized nationally as a leading advocate for club coaches. He used to be a gadfly; now he sits on USA Swimming's board of directors.
As Pierce kept his focus on the Loyola High boys in the 1970s, Stephens found a niche coaching women. Theresa Andrews in 1984 and Beth Botsford in 1996 won Olympic gold in the 100-meter backstroke. Botsford aggravated a shoulder injury in Atlanta, where Stephens was on the U.S. coaching staff. Four years earlier in Barcelona, Spain, he had no access to Anita Nall, the world-record holder in the 200 breaststroke who won bronze.
"The cord needs to be cut at some point," Nall said, "but the Olympics aren't the time or place to do that."
Dennis Pursley, the national team director at the time, said, "Murray lets you know when he's not happy with a situation." Stephens said his complaints led to a more liberal staffing policy, which got Bowman on the Olympic pool deck with Phelps in 2000, but he remains perturbed over the issue.
"Why would I want to get over it?" Stephens said. "It was wrong. We still have Michael Phelps. Anita can't repeat it."
Stephens `believed in me'
Andrews changed high schools and households to join the NBAC in 1978, when she was 16. Five years later, she postponed her senior year at the University of Florida because Stephens offered her the best chance at the Olympics.
"Not many people believed in me," Andrews said. "Murray did, but he wanted to know why he should take me back."
Training 10 or 11 times a week and sometimes logging more than 50 miles, Phelps doesn't train substantially different than did Andrews. She was a rarity; Stephens felt college swimmers wouldn't submit to his demands.
"One of Murray's strengths is recognizing when it's time to let something go," Bowman said. "When Murray was coming up, swimmers went to college and then they were done. Now, people stay in the sport longer. If we're going to be competitive, we have to meet the needs of older swimmers."
Phelps' readiness to move up to the Senior Elite Group coincided with increased family and business demands on Stephens. He moved aside so Bowman could maintain his relationship with Phelps and now coaches a younger group.
Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother, is the president of the NBAC. She said, "This is not a parent-run club," and Tom Himes learned in 2002 that Stephens is still plotting the course.
"I was one of the few people who would disagree with Murray," said Himes, fired by Stephens after 17 years as one of his assistants. "He was always looking to get better, but I was disappointed I was never told why [he was fired]. They probably think I bad-mouth them, but it's a first-rate organization. No one in the world could have done for Michael Phelps what Bob Bowman has done."
Bowman has gotten lucrative offers from other American club teams, with the understanding that he would bring Phelps. The swimmer has raised the bar for his competition and attracted accomplished swimmers, but he isn't viewed as a Pied Piper at the NBAC.