Baltimore pool churns out Olympians

Just north of downtown Baltimore, a couple of pool lengths from Interstate 83, there is a swim club. It’s not that impressive from the outside; to be honest, it’s not that impressive from the inside, either. It could be anywhere in America, any pool where kids splash around and parents read books.

But if you happen to come here on the right day, which won’t be too often between now and the Summer Olympics, you’ll see a tall, lanky young man with a Baltimore Orioles cap tugged over his eyes. He’ll park in one of the three reserved spots out front. He’ll walk into the locker room. He’ll change next to all the old men and the little kids and jump into the pool.

His name is Michael Phelps.

The fact that the most decorated swimmer in Olympic history can operate in relative anonymity here is just one of the wonders of the Meadowbrook facility, home of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. What Santa Clara Swim Club — a place that’s produced more than 80 Olympic medalists — is to the West Coast, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club is to the East Coast: A place that churns out Olympians.

The club has sent at least one swimmer to every Olympics since 1984. The club’s 220-member swim team sent two dozen swimmers to the Olympic trials last month. Allison Schmitt will be joining Phelps as NBAC representatives on the 2012 Olympic squad.

And Phelps was lucky enough to grow up in a row-house development in this blue-collar city, just a few miles away from this mecca for the country club sport of swimming.

"You have a couple of Olympians in the lanes training next to little kids with noodles and squirt guns," said John Cadigan, the director of operations for the club. "Since Michael’s grown up here, it’s a sanctuary for him. He’s not Michael Phelps the celebrity here. He’s just Mike."

Clusters of brilliance can come from the most unlikely of places. Youngstown, Ohio, raised many brilliant college football coaches, and western Pennsylvania used to be considered a quarterback factory. A band of technology entrepreneurs have turned Silicon Valley into the world’s computing capital.

In many ways, America’s history is written not by the solitary genius, but instead by the group of inspired youngsters whose greatness begets greatness. With a petri dish of prodigies, whether athletic or intellectual, a culture can be born: Ernest Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920s fueled the greatest generation of American literature; Richard Wright’s Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s laid the bedrock for generations of black culture; Don Draper’s Madison Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s defined the way America consumes; Kurt Cobain’s rainy Seattle in the 1990s birthed grunge music.

And a little swim club born in North Baltimore in 1968 has raised a flock of Olympic swimmers, culminating in the single most-decorated Olympian in history.

"It’s because of the culture we’ve created," said US Olympic swim coach Bob Bowman, who also happens to be the CEO and head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "An institution like that in Baltimore, which is kind of known as a blue-collar town, and here’s this place where all these Olympic swimmers have been produced. And I guarantee there are 100 little guys right now that think they’re going to make the team. … These kids believe anything is possible, and they can do it right there in Baltimore. We don’t have to have a fancy pool. We don’t have to have a lot of frills."

And Bowman means it when he says few frills. Phelps’ weight room at Meadowbrook? It’s an outdoor pavilion filled with equipment, which in the winter is lined with plastic tarp and filled with space heaters. They call it "the dojo."

Hanging on a wall next to the indoor pool are portraits of the Olympians of this place. Patrick Kennedy, a 1984 Olympian. Theresa Andrews, a two-time gold medalist from 1984. Anita Nall, who won three medals in 1992. Beth Botsford, who won two golds in 1996. Whitney Metzler, a 1996 Olympian. Katie Hoff, who won a silver and two bronzes in 2008. And, of course, the king of the American pool with 14 golds and two bronzes in 2004 and 2008 — who now, along with Bowman, co-owns the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center.

"I grew up on the team, and it’s been a part of my life ever since I was born," Phelps said. "We just had the most amazing tradition of excellence, to be able to put someone on the Olympic team from 1984 on. We’re all so close. One of the coolest things for me growing up, we would go to the Christmas meet and we’d be able to see people like Beth Botsford and Anita Nall."

What does it take for a place to become this type of talent cluster? Is it one dedicated coach with a vision for greatness? Is it one outstanding talent who motivates others to follow? Is it the simple coincidence of the stars aligning during one magical time and place?

Or can there be something about a certain place that makes it uniquely fit to develop great writing or great music or great athletics?

"It’s the environment of Baltimore itself — they’re critical of losing," Cadigan said. "You listen to sports talk radio, and the Orioles might be winning, but they still need to fix their defense. Even if they’re winning, there’s room for improvement. Maybe that’s part of it. We’re the stepsister to D.C. down the road or big, old Philly up the road. We’re a stop on the Amtrak line. So, we feel we got something to prove."

Baltimore is a city with much in its historical trophy case. It’s the home of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (written at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812). It was once home to Edgar Allan Poe and Babe Ruth. It’s the capital of the crab cake. It’s where the finest television drama in history, "The Wire," was set. It’s the place that began the new style of American ballparks with the building of Camden Yards.

And now, with Phelps aiming to further his record number of gold medals in London, it’s the capital of American swimming — although you won’t see a single trophy lying around the club, because, as Cadigan says, they’re always looking for that next trophy.

What Cadigan does like to show off is a swim team photo from 1991. There’s five future Olympians in that photo, including the big-eared, rambunctious 5-year-old Michael Phelps in the second row. Cadigan looks at the photo and smiles. Part of that smile is because he remembers how many times he had to make that young Phelps sit under the lifeguard’s chair for misbehaving. The other part is because he wonders just how many Olympians will come out of the next team photo.

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