Things could hardly have gone worse last summer for swimmer Brennan Morris. Two stress fractures in his back laid him up for three months. He failed to qualify for a single final at the Olympic trials.
Two years after Morris’s family had moved from rural Pennsylvania to Baltimore to permit him to train at the esteemed North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Morris, 18, seemed to be going nowhere.
But last fall he sat down with Bob Bowman, NBAC’s new chief executive and Michael Phelps’s longtime coach. Knowing Morris’s promise, and seeing his frustration, Bowman invited Morris, then entering his senior year of high school, to move into Bowman’s exclusive professional group.
So as Phelps, 24, returned to the pool after his eight-gold-medal performance at the Beijing Summer Games, Morris became his youngest training partner. At first daunted, Morris soon thrived. Less than a year after the switch, Morris enters the swimming world championships that begin in Rome Sunday as the youngest male member of the U.S. team. He will compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle on Aug. 1.
“It’s been great,” Morris said by phone from Indianapolis a day after securing his world-team slot by finishing second in the 1,500 free at the U.S. swimming championships. “There’s a lot of motivation to come to the pool with great swimmers around and a great coach. I was really motivated to get to the top level.”
Bowman’s training group also included Katie Hoff, 20, who won three medals at the 2008 Summer Games. She, however, didn’t intimidate Morris in the least. They had, after all, just taken a six-week vacation together to Costa Rica, where they went white-water rafting and zip-lining. Morris would have escorted Hoff to her senior prom, except she didn’t have one; like Morris, Hoff was home-schooled.
Morris and Hoff had gotten to know each other while swimming together under former NBAC coach Paul Yetter. They have now been dating for more than a year, and Morris’s satisfaction over his own success at the July 7-11 U.S. championships in Indianapolis was tempered by Hoff’s disappointing week there.
Her failure to qualify for the world championship team was, perhaps, more stunning than Morris’s slipping onto the squad on the last night of competition.
Morris said he hoped to hang out with Hoff in Rome — after the championships.
“She’s had a tough year, and she’s done a great job handling it,” Morris said. “I’m always there for her whenever she has a problem, just like she was there for me when she was doing great and I wasn’t. I’ll always be a shoulder to lean on if she needs one.”
Phelps, who is something of a big brother to everyone at NBAC, also provides Morris and Hoff a comforting shoulder — at least when he’s not using his elbow to prod and tease both of them.
During a recent training session, Phelps chuckled at Morris’s determination to match the number of push-ups Phelps had done during a drill. Morris, who is not only is six years younger but also considerably slighter than Phelps, struggled mightily to equal Phelps’s — and even Hoff’s — output. Grinning mischievously, Phelps needled Morris about push-ups that wouldn’t have met the Marine standard for proper execution.
But Morris merely labored on, and he and Phelps chatted and laughed as they clung to kickboards during their pool session, wiling away the laps with conversation. Phelps has been an occasional poker partner, Morris said, and an all-around good guy.
“We all have different goals in the group,” Morris said. “Michael has his goals, Katie has her goals ….. I have my goals ….. [Michael] is very easy to get along with. Everyone’s friends in the group.”
Kathleen Morris said her son felt honored to swim with Phelps and under Bowman, but never overwhelmed by it.
“There was no adjustment at all,” she said. “He was just thrilled to be there working with Bob. Everything was a total positive. It was a huge honor.”
Bowman’s group originally included swimming veterans Nick Thoman and Hayley McGregory, but both have returned to prior training homes; it now features Kailey Morris, 21, who is Morris’s sister and swims for Penn State, and former Indiana University swimmer Todd Patrick. After the world championships, Bowman has said, he intends to promote young stars Elizabeth Pelton, 15, and Felicia Lee, 17.
“It’s a very small group,” Kathleen Morris said. But Brennan Morris “was used to a small group. It was almost like going home. He was used to swimming just with his sister.”
Indeed, after the Morris family moved from Albany, N.Y., and settled near Lewisburg, Pa., in 2001, Brennan and Kailey Morris began training by themselves under coach Jon Larson at Big Cat Aquatics in State College, Pa. By 2005, Brennan Morris was the top 14-year-old boy in the nation in eight events.
But the commute to practice — more than an hour in each direction — took its toll on the family.
“They got used to it, and nobody complained, but you try to find a better situation after a while,” Kathleen Morris said.
In August of 2006, as Kailey Morris began college at Penn State, Kathleen Morris moved her other children — Brennan and his sister, Camryne, now 14 — to Baltimore. William Morris, the family patriarch, had gone to college at Johns Hopkins University. The whole family loved the Baltimore Orioles, and the Morrises knew well the reputation of the NBAC program, where both Phelps and Hoff had developed.
William Morris remained behind, however, continuing to work as a nuclear engineer at the Susquehanna Nuclear Power Plant in Berwick, Pa. He visits his family when work permits, and the entire group made the trip to Indianapolis for the U.S. championships.
No one had any idea Brennan Morris would win a trip to Rome there.
No one, that is, except Bowman.
“Bob made us all bring passports, just in case,” Morris said. “I guess it was a good idea.”
The retirements of Larsen Jensen, Klete Keller and Erik Vendt made the 1,500 free one of the most wide-open events at the U.S. championships, but Morris, who finished ninth in the 400 medley, wasn’t overly optimistic.
But when he dropped 20 seconds off of his best time in the preliminary round, Morris realized he was in the mix for a world-championship berth. He earned a fourth seed in the final. He figured the weight training, the emphasis on the freestyle stroke Bowman had demanded, had paid off.
“It was a pretty young field,” Morris said. “I was trying to place as high as I could with the top two in the back of my mind.”
Bowman advised Morris to stay within sight of the top guys and try to make it a race over the last 200 meters. In an oddly close competition for such a long event, Morris found himself in third with 200 remaining, but just 0.85 seconds behind Josef Kinderwater.
With Bowman’s instructions in mind, Morris blasted by Kinderwater over the next 50 meters and hung on to second place.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with him,” Bowman said. “He did everything I asked him to do — and he did it well.”