BALTIMORE — One preteen swimmer moved here with her father, leaving her mother, brother and sister behind in New Jersey. A young teenager uprooted her entire family, bringing everyone from Michigan. Another arrived from Connecticut with her mother and siblings while her dad stayed behind to work. Still another left both parents at home, settling in the area with his grandparents.
They, a handful of locals, and a few swimmers who commute several hours daily from Pennsylvania or Washington, all hope to reach the Olympic Games by way of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the home club of Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff and, more recently, a coveted hub for young stars who believe they can best launch their careers by leaving their home pools.
The NBAC is “famous for taking people who are good and making them great,” said Greg Pelton, 18, who arrived along with his sister Elizabeth, 15, from Fairfield, Conn., in the summer of 2006 and plans to swim at Harvard next year. “I wanted to see how far I could go.”
Teen athletes who uproot or split up their families in search of better training have long been a phenomenon in figure skating and gymnastics. But until a host of transplants began descending on the NBAC in the five years since Phelps won the first six of his 14 Olympic gold medals, there was little indication that such a trend would emerge in swimming, a sport in which the most talented youngsters typically have waited until they reach the collegiate level to leave their neighborhood swim clubs.
With Phelps and Hoff making their Olympic debuts at age 15 — Phelps in the 2000 Summer Games and Hoff in 2004 — highly professional youth training in swimming seems to have acquired a greater sense of legitimacy and even urgency. The athletes lured to the NBAC said they came in part because of Phelps’s or Hoff’s success; the club’s long Olympic history (the NBAC has produced six Olympic swimmers dating from Theresa Andrews, who won two gold medals at the ’84 Summer Games); the reputation of Hoff’s former coach, Paul Yetter, as a master at molding young athletes; and the chance to train daily with other young stars in a serious environment.
“Each year, we seem to get one or two athletes who are very good athletes who want to get to the top level,” said Yetter, who has accepted an assistant coaching position at Auburn and will depart in mid-July. “Sometimes, they are already there.”
Whether NBAC’s youngsters will blossom into Olympic medal winners in 2012 is unclear, but no other club in the country can match the sort of top-end young talent it houses. As of early June, six NBAC swimmers — Drew Cosgarea, 16; Collin Turner, 11; Camryne Morris, 14; Willa Wang, 14; Elizabeth Pelton, 15; and Felicia Lee, who turned 17 in May — were ranked No. 1 in the nation in their age groups in at least one event, according to USA Swimming rankings. Each of the top three swimmers in the age-14 girls’ 800 and 1,500 freestyle (Morris, Wang and Lauren Hine) trains at NBAC.
Of those six standouts, only Cosgarea and Turner are not transplants from other pools.
“With ‘the imports,’ we’re really making a … national name for ourselves,” said Austin Surhoff, son of former Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff, and one of the local products on Yetter’s team who will swim at the University of Texas next year. “We’re bringing in people from all over the East Coast instead of just local kids. That’s the major change.”
The Washington region’s Curl-Burke Swim Club has been known to attract the occasional star from outside the United States, and it and Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club are respected nationwide for their annual dominance of USA Swimming competitions that measure the breadth and depth of a club’s success. They, however, lack the bevy of young U.S. stars that populate NBAC, which is several times smaller.
“North Baltimore is a success story,” Curl-Burke founder Rick Curl said earlier this year. “They have, compared to us, very small numbers, but very high quality.”
Said Mark Eldredge, a Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club coach: “They are obviously the most successful club program in the country in developing Olympic-caliber athletes.”
Morris moved with her mother and siblings — brother Brennan trains with Coach Bob Bowman’s group — from Lewisburg, Pa., in 2006. Wang moved with her family from Michigan in 2008. Lee came with her father from Wayne, N.J., in 2005. Hine drives every day from York, Pa. Hunter Lussi, 15, a triathlete who has been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids, makes a 2 1⁄2-hour daily round-trip commute from Georgetown Prep in Bethesda.
Those who wish to join the elite group coached by Yetter — his successor has not yet been named — must submit their best times, come in for a tryout and receive a nod from Bowman, also the club’s chief executive. Hoff, who moved with her family from Newport News, Va., in 2003, was actually the first of the recent transplants. She was lured by the progress made by a rival under Yetter.
“It’s just nuts,” said Yetter, who grew up swimming at NBAC alongside Olympians Anita Nall and Whitney Metzler. “Kids from out of town visit and they want to move … I’m not sure we do anything special other than believe we can be high-level athletes.”
Indeed, what is special about the club, athletes say, is far more metaphysical than physical. Founded by swim coach Murray Stephens in 1968, the NBAC holds most of its training sessions at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, a large but unglamorous venue. The facility, which will celebrate its 80th birthday next year, has had plenty of incremental upgrades but no major facelift in more than a decade. Bowman and Phelps, who jointly bought the building last year, are rumored to have expansion plans in the works.
As the swimmers in Yetter’s group arrived for practice after school on a recent afternoon, they did not bother visiting the aging locker rooms; rather, they yanked off their T-shirts and warmups, stuffed them in their duffel bags and backpacks and piled them in a corner near the pool.
As Yetter talked about how his stars have thrived in the hallowed old swim hall with dusty corners and rickety edges, a cockroach scurried past one of his sneakers, as if to emphasize the point.
“It’s really an awesome group of athletes,” Yetter said. “They are ready to go, ready to work, and I count my blessings.”
If any inspiration is needed, giant photos of each of the club’s Olympians stare down from one wall. For two hours on a recent afternoon, Yetter flew from one end of the pool deck to the other, shouting instructions and encouragement as his athletes raced one another, even in warmups.
At the far end of the pool, pressing his tiny face against the glass that separates the lobby from the main pool, a young boy, perhaps 4 years old, squealed repeatedly as he watched the swimmers: “Go Michael Phelps! Go Michael Phelps!”
“This is a very high-intensity place,” Greg Pelton said. “It’s perfect if you want to get better.”
The Pelton family sold its home in Fairfield, Conn., after tiring of a 100-mile daily commute for swim training in Manhattan for their children. The family patriarch, Greg Sr., a professor at Columbia University Medical Center, moved into a studio apartment near the university as his wife, Anne, and the couple’s four children settled into a house in Towson.
They did not seriously consider any other club besides NBAC.
The move has paid off, particularly for Elizabeth Pelton. She is ranked first in four events among 15-year-old girls, holds several national age-group records and is considered one of the most promising up-and-comers in the country.
“We were feeling like we wanted to get the kids into a program at a very high level,” Anne Pelton said. “In order to do that, we were going to have to move … It was pretty much a clear choice for us. You just kind of know in your gut you have to do something.”
Felicia Lee, who trained at the Montclair (N.J.) YMCA until she was 13, felt the same way. “I was good,” Lee said, “but I wanted to be faster.” So her father, Kin Lee, a professional chef, left his job to move to the Baltimore region with his daughter. His wife, Francesca Lee, meanwhile, a vice president at a wholesale company in Moonachie, N.J., remained with the couple’s other daughter and son in Wayne, N.J.
“It was a big change, but I was excited to do it,” Felicia Lee said. “It was my decision, but my parents supported me through it. Just to get a chance to train at a place like this is really amazing.”
Tags: Michael Phelps