Maverick coach has made waves in swimming world

He churns out Olympic-caliber athletes.

Posted: August 14, 2007

BALTIMORE - Olympic swimmers are supposed to sprout up, tanned and sinewy, in the Southern California sun, not in ugly cinder-block buildings behind the Mount Washington Post Office.

Yet the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a cluttered, chaotic facility just off the Falls Road exit of Interstate 83, has become an American mecca, producing a deep pool of world-class swim talent that has surpassed all those California venues and powerful collegiate programs.

On one recent weekday afternoon, parents and some of the 1,500 youngsters who take lessons here each week crowded into a tiny lobby littered with tables, chairs and backpacks. They stood just feet away from the pro shop where 18 years ago an unhappy 4-year-old named Michael Phelps begged his mother to not make him get into the pool.

It's been the spectacular success of Phelps, the pterodactyl-spanned Baltimorean who, at 22, might be the greatest swimmer ever, that has springboarded the long-respected NBAC to cult status.

The NBAC's Meadowbrook facility, 10 miles north of downtown Baltimore, has become one of those off-the-beaten-track locales, like the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club or Boathouse Row, that, despite the rigors of training in the Northeast, continues to turn out Olympic-caliber athletes.

In addition to Phelps, nine other Olympians have been developed in its 50-meter indoor and outdoor pools. NBAC swimmers have won 11 gold medals and eight national championships, and set 15 world records.

That reputation has led talented young swimmers such as Katie Hoff, a California native who won three golds at the last world championships in Australia, to relocate here for an NBAC training regimen that combines rigorous workouts with positive thinking.

"We view success differently," said Murray Stephens, who cofounded the NBAC in 1967. "Success here is having our kids swimming at the Olympic trials."

The club has had at least one participant in every trial since 1968.

"We set expectations high and then we exceed them," Stephens said. "And we've never let anyone dissuade us. That's why we have more world records than any club or university in the country."

Much of the NBAC's success is due to Stephens, 61, the brash, antiauthoritarian, former high school teacher whose ultracompetitiveness permeates the building like the scent of chlorine.

Motivated by the then-revolutionary training he observed in the 1960s and 1970s at Newtown Square's Suburban Swim Club and Philadelphia's Kelly Pool, Stephens decided to buy the old Meadowbrook swim club and use it as a lab for his dreams.

Many in the swimming establishment, first in Baltimore, later nationwide, scoffed at the young coach's lofty goals.

"They laughed at us," he said of one elite Baltimore team. "They were like, 'Who do you guys think you are? The Original Amateur Hour?' In less than two years, we beat them in a dual meet. They hadn't lost in maybe 20 years. Well, we haven't lost since."

Since then, Stephens and acolytes such as Bob Bowman and Paul Yetter have turned out a flow of champions. Beyond Phelps, who won six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics, and U.S. teammate Hoff, alums include gold-medalist Olympians Theresa Andrews (1984), Anita Nall (1992) and Beth Botsford (1996).

Michelle King and Courtney Kalisz, two potential 2008 Olympians, train here now. Bowman, a 2004 Olympic assistant, is a former NBAC instructor who coaches Phelps at Michigan. Yetter will lead the Pan-American team this summer. Stephens was an Olympic assistant in 1996.

The club, one of the few owned and operated by a coach, does it, Stephens said, by relying not only on technology and technique, but also by implanting ambition into the heads of young swimmers and their families.

Earlier this week, as they practiced, a dozen of the club's best wore caps that on one side proclaimed "Beijing '08" and on the other Chinese characters that translate into the word excellence.

"We had those caps made because we want our kids thinking about swimming in the Olympics," Stephens said. "Too many places are afraid to raise anyone's expectation levels. I think every person had a vision in their heart of being in the Olympics. To get there, you have to evaluate, refine, and record how you want to make yourself better every day."

Stephens scrutinizes individual performances and then customizes a regimen that combines hard work, self-confidence, and his interpretation of the latest swimming techniques.

"We experiment with bits and pieces and create our own style," he said. "Technical skills, knowledge of training, and people-management skills are the reasons why we're successful."

But above all, it is that insistence on big dreams.

After Andrews' two gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, some in the sport suggested that Stephens had been lucky because of the Soviet bloc boycott. That was reinforced when the NBAC was shut out at the 1988 Games.

Immediately after that Olympics, Stephens gathered the club's elite swimmers and their parents, a group that was anticipating a few months off. Instead, he informed them it was time to start getting ready for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain.

"I could tell that the team members and their parents were saying, 'What's he talking about? This is not for real. It's a joke, right? It's something he's saying to show how important he is.' Well, I drop-dead meant it."

Four years later, at the Barcelona Games, Nall won gold, silver and bronze.

In 1976, when Stephens was just kicking his program into gear, most of the U.S. women's swimming establishment was conceding dominance to the steroid-aided Soviet bloc athletes.

"People were saying, 'You can't break their records. They're all pumped up on steroids,' " he said. "Well, they were done on steroids, but I wouldn't accept the first part of that premise. I think anyone is beatable. I don't care what medicine they're taking.

"By '78, Tracy Caulkins and other U.S. girls just crushed them in the world championships. You had all these big East German women crying behind the stands. So I guess it was possible, right?"

Balding, trim and red-faced, Stephens grew up on a farm just north of the club. He was a high school swimmer and went on to star at nearby Loyola College.

He has earned his maverick's reputation by being outspoken and, among other things, bucking the U.S. Olympic Committee's training demands while stubbornly adhering to his beliefs.

"Training developments won't come from what authorities tell you," he said. "They are like the military, always fighting the last war. It's the individual coaches out there, the ones experimenting and developing great swimmers, who will move the ball down the field."

Stephens garners criticism the way his swimmers collect medals. After acknowledging that fact in a recent interview, he printed out his resume as well as the NBAC's history as if the impressive historical record would provide his defense.

"I've had supposed authorities tell me I don't know anything about the backstroke. Except I've [coached] two gold-medal winners myself. I've had people who were supposed authorities on training telling me we didn't train the right way. Except that currently we have both world-record holders in the 400-meter individual medley [Phelps and Hoff]. I don't think anyone's ever done that."

Some of Stephens' detractors like to point out that as the NBAC's reputation has grown, several of its best swimmers, such as Hoff, have arrived as fully accomplished performers.

"People are jealous," Stephens said. "They look at Theresa Andrews and say, 'Well, she won a junior national event before she came there, so they didn't develop her. And Beth [Botsford] was 9 and already swam for a summer team.'

"Well, Michael Phelps was 4 and crying in our pro shop when he first came here. Is that enough? Or do we have to have them born on the property?"

Phelps' older sisters, Hilary and Whitney, had excelled under Stephens and his staff.

"By the time Michael was becoming an age-group champion at 10," he said, "his family had been in the sport seven or eight years. They bought into the whole routine and understood it. They learned from it. A couple of years later, Michael was the youngest swimmer in history to make an Olympic team."

One young swimmer who shifted her training site to the NBAC is Olympic hopeful King, of York, Pa.

"All my times have gotten better," said King, 17, who commutes to the pool. "The atmosphere is really positive. Everybody challenges each other to get better."

All the time he talked, Stephens kept an eye on the elite swimmers working out below his office window. They will continue to bolster his brashness and play out his dreams.

"I guess somewhere along the line we've risen above our detractors, the people who don't really understand us," he said. "And we just kept moving on down the road."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick

at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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