From her home in New Jersey, Felicia Lee watched the 2004 Olympics. She saw Michael Phelps, the then-19-year-old star of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, race to six gold medals and hold the eyes of the world in rapture. She listened as commentators praised not just Phelps’ talent and ethic, but also his coach, NBAC’s Bob Bowman, for his program and his understanding of how to maximize potential.
During the next year, seventh-grader Lee traveled to Baltimore to tour the NBAC and meet the coaches.
“I walked into the pool and it was just like, everything just clicked,” Lee said. “The training atmosphere, the people there, everyone was so friendly and welcoming. It was a place I just had to be.”
So her father quit his job as a chef and he and his daughter moved from New Brunswick, N.J., leaving behind her mother and an older brother and younger sister, so Lee could chase a future in world-class swimming.
Fast forward through four years of grueling practices and countless meets, and Lee, 17, is now one of the brightest stars at NBAC. Last month she made finals in the 100-meter butterfly at U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. And at last week’s junior national championships in Federal Way, Wash., she won three gold medals, bringing home the top prize in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and 4×200 freestyle relay.
She celebrated a bit, traveling to New Jersey for a two-week stay with her mother and siblings, and on Sunday was treated to a trip on a yacht that belongs to one of her mother’s friends.
But her focus remains on swimming. When she returns to Baltimore, she and fellow NBAC standout, 15-year-old Elizabeth Pelton, will join Bowman’s elite training group.
“I’m just excited to see what kind of changes he’ll bring to what I’ve already done and how he can help me improve,” Lee said. “He’s a great guy, too. He’s pretty funny.”
Scott Armstrong, coach of the senior team at NBAC, said Bowman will be able to help nurture Lee and mold her into a dominant performer.
“There’s not a coach in the country, or probably in the world, that has [a better] ability to visualize a future and the path to getting there,” Armstrong said of Bowman. “So the thing that Felicia is going to get is really this enormous wealth of knowledge and experience that Bob has.”
Part of the reason for Lee’s move to Bowman’s group is that her previous NBAC coach, Paul Yetter, took a job in May coaching at Auburn University. So at junior championships, she swam eight exhausting events without him in her ear.
“Towards the end of the meet it was kind of like I didn’t know if I could swim another event,” she said. But, in Yetter’s absence, she turned to her teammates: “They just kept me having fun and laughing.”
The next year will likely prove to be key in Lee’s development. In addition to training with Bowman, Lee will be training for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a meet involving the United States, Japan, Australia and Canada, and picking a college.
Starting July 1, collegiate swim coaches were allowed to begin recruiting, and Lee, who will be a senior at Towson High, said offers began pouring in. She declined to say what schools were interested, but acknowledged it would be a tough choice.
“It’s exciting, but it’s a little bit overwhelming at the same time,” she said, “because you have to say no to some great schools, too.”
Armstrong said Lee will have the opportunity to attend a school with both good academics and good swimming, and that she should not forsake one in favor of the other. “What I have said to her is, she is very smart, and she needs to do justice to her academics and to her intelligence,” Armstrong said. “I would encourage her to make sure academics is part of the equation for her and not just sell out her academics for swimming. Swimming needs to be a huge part of the decision, but academics needs to be a factor, too.”
Tags: Michael Phelps