Only the best

For Murray Stephens and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, effort is everything

Beijing 2008

August 14, 2008|By Childs Walker and Candus Thomson | Childs Walker and Candus Thomson,Sun reporters

The home of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club doesn't look like much.

Cars overflow the parking lot and spill onto the grass in the summer. Chubby-legged children and haggard parents splash haphazardly around the outdoor pool, which could belong to any community center in any American suburb. Inside, fitness freaks pedal and pump on exercise machines overlooking more swimming lanes.

The only signs of anything unusual are the Beijing 2008 flags that hang above the entry hall. They hint at the reality that in 2008, Baltimore is the cradle of American swimming.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on the front page of yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly listed swimming coach Murray Stephens' age as 68. Stephens is 62.

Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff - who have combined for seven medals at this year's Olympics and are expected to win more - came into their own at this humble facility, tucked two quick turns off Falls Road on the edge of Mount Washington.

If Murray Stephens had told anybody that would be the case in 1968, they'd have laughed. Back then, great U.S. swimmers came from California. Period.

But Stephens, a Loyola High School and Loyola College graduate who became obsessed with swimming as a teenager in the 1950s, did not see why that had to be so. This gruff philosopher of the pool founded his club 40 years ago as a canvas for his ideas. In the decades that followed, Stephens attracted coaches who shared his scientific lust to find the best methods for propelling a human body through water and his will to drive young athletes day after day, week after week.

The aquatic club produced its first Olympic gold medalist in 1984 and became famous when Phelps won six golds in Athens 20 years later. Swimming aficionados speak in awe of the little East Coast club that has produced more than 180 age group record-holders and attracts more talent every year.

Hoff remembers walking in for the first time and "seeing all the pictures" of elite swimmers. She quickly realized that she had best swim hard every day or find another home.

"They have high standards," she says, "and that's what's expected of you."

Mark Schubert, who will oversee the U.S. swimming team in Beijing, calls NBAC "the best swimming club program in America."

"What happened at North Baltimore didn't happen by accident," he says. "The results and the records speak for themselves, year after year, championship after championship. Murray has built a culture of excellence. He had a vision and he hires the right people to fulfill that vision, from Bob Bowman to Paul Yetter to his coaches at the lower levels. It wouldn't surprise me if he already had his eye on the next great coach."

Though the club stands on the cusp of its greatest glory, it is, at the same time, a place in transition.

This fall, Phelps will return home after four years of training in Michigan. Bowman will come with him and take Stephens' place as CEO. The big names are expected to attract more talent to a club already laden with age group record-holders. But the modest space in Mount Washington is maxed out, so if the club is to take on more elite swimmers, expansion might be needed.

"If you've got $5 million handy, let me know," Stephens says over a sandwich at the nearby Mount Washington Tavern.

He and Bowman see Phelps and Hoff as the best marketing tools imaginable to expand a swimming business. But the shape of NBAC's future won't be revealed until after the pair swim in Beijing.

The club's past is inextricably linked to one man's blend of ambition, commitment, discipline and artistry.

Stephens, 68, largely taught himself to swim in his family's pool in Cockeysville. Though he competed in high school and college, his obsession with technique exceeded his talent. He found the sport fascinating enough that he accumulated every issue of Swimming World ever published.

Stephens founded the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with fellow Loyola graduate Tim Pierce. He took early inspiration from coach Lefty Driesell's proclamation that he would make the University of Maryland the "UCLA of the East" in college basketball. Stephens wanted to build a swimming powerhouse that could rival those in California and Florida.

He was both old-school in his rigor and new-school in his open-mindedness about training techniques.

"He's a visionary, ahead of his time," says Theresa Andrews, who became Stephens' first Olympic gold medalist in 1984. "The best way to describe it is, he develops with athletes a way to think through a situation. He doesn't teach you just to swim fast; he teaches you how to think."

The club cranked out top-notch competitors long before it found a permanent home in Mount Washington, sending at least one swimmer to every Olympic Trials from 1968 on.

Stephens took over the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in 1986. The place had served area swimmers since 1930 and was in sorry shape. In his scant spare time between coaching and teaching English at Loyola High School, Stephens scratched together the money to refurbish Meadowbrook. He believes that time and financial sacrifices were essential to the club's success.

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