Baltimore the new Olympic swimming factory? Believe it, it's true

BALTIMORE -- When you think of this city, you instantly think of crab cakes. You think of Cal Ripken Jr. The Inner Harbor. The National Aquarium.

But in the name of Johnny U., do you think of Olympic swimming?

After these Olympics, you probably will.

For years, America's best swimmers trained in places such as California and Florida. The Santa Clara Swim Club was one of the most notable training centers because Olympians Donna de Varona and Mark Spitz once called it home.

Nowadays, it's been a Baltimore blitz.

Entering these Olympics in Beijing, the top two swimmers in the United States both have emerged from Baltimore. Michael Phelps, who was born and raised in Baltimore, trained with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club up until the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He spent the past four years training in Ann Arbor, Mich., but both he and longtime coach Bob Bowman will return to Baltimore after the 2008 Games.

He has been the ultimate hometown-boy-does-good story, and his heroics in the pool have landed him hundreds of local headlines. Baltimoreans have taken pride in spotting him at his favorite breakfast eateries -- how could you not glimpse at someone wolfing down a mound of pancakes and eggs the size of Camden Yards?

But even Phelps, who undoubtedly will be the American star in Beijing, has to share his media coverage with another Baltimore swimmer -- Katie Hoff.

Dubbed "the female Michael Phelps," Hoff won five individual events at the Olympic trials in July. She could break Amy Van Dyken's feat of winning four gold medals in Atlanta. Hoff was not born in Baltimore. She was born in California (both of her parents are Stanford graduates) and later moved to Virginia. But she's been in Baltimore long enough -- since 2003 -- that it's home.

So often Hoff and Phelps are asked what it was like to swim together in Baltimore. Truth be told, although they might have swum some laps in the same pool, they were not, as swimming mythology would have it, regular training partners. Nor did they have the same coach.

In fact, Phelps spent most of his time at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club's main site in Mount Washington, about eight miles north of the Inner Harbor. Hoff, meanwhile, initially trained at a NBAC hub in a different county, in Abingdon, Md., about 30 miles away. Her coach is Paul Yetter. Hoff moved to the Mount Washington site to train with the senior team in 2004, around the time Phelps moved to Michigan.

When Phelps and Bowman relocate to Baltimore this fall, they will be back at Mount Washington. Bowman will take over for NBAC founder and former Olympic assistant coach Murray Stephens.

Another myth is that Hoff and her family decided to come to Baltimore to follow in Phelps' fins. But that's not the case. One of the main reasons she came to Baltimore was that a friend of hers, Courtney Kalisz, was there.

It's odd, but Phelps and Hoff are friendlier now that they train in different states than they were when both swam laps in Maryland. Both have the same agent, are under contract with Speedo and live to pull pranks on each other. "It's a true brother-sister relationship," Hoff said.

Now both of Baltimore's hopefuls are off to Beijing as America's medal favorites.

The amazing thing about the NBAC is that you'd almost never notice its training center, Meadowbrook, unless someone gave you directions to the pool. It's located in an eclectic neighborhood with small boutiques and salons, narrow, twisting roads and a Whole Foods. The pool is next door to an ice rink and a stone's throw away from a post office. Fortunately for the swimmers, who often hit the pool deck at the crack of dawn, there's a nearby Starbucks. (Hoff said she can barely survive without her caffeine.)

There are no signs to direct you to Meadowbrook, even though it's located around the corner from I-83, a major Baltimore highway. When you walk into the place, chances are you'll see plenty of young mothers with strollers taking their children in for swimming lessons.

But inside is the place where many Olympians emerged. Long before Phelps, swimmers like 1984 gold medalist Theresa Andrews and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Anita Nall perfected their strokes there. Established in 1968, the swim club has developed nearly a dozen Olympic athletes.

"I have a picture of Michael holding a sign saying, 'Anita Nall No. 1 USA,'" Stephens said. "You can't plan that kind of picture.

"But I've learned in swimming that you have to take it one day at a time. It's like golf. You don't worry about the hole five holes ahead of you. You look back, and I remember Michael swimming the pool when he was 4 years old. He was skinny as a rail but strong as heck. But you never know what will happen."

Phelps, of course, has gone on to become one of the best, if not the best, swimmers in the world.

If you walk into Meadowbrook these days, you'll see Beijing banners hanging up near the entrance and a bulletin board with news articles about Hoff and Phelps. A sign inside the pool area reads: "If we are to be champions, we must rehearse daily championships with ourselves." The motto was adhered to: Seventeen NBAC swimmers, including Hoff, qualified for the Olympic trials.

So what is it about Baltimore that makes the swimming so good? Is there something in the water in the Chesapeake Bay?

"I think time and effort over 40 years in development in this program is obviously the key," Stephens said.

Stephens and fellow coach Tim Pierce began training swimmers in Baltimore in 1967. By the following spring, they established the NBAC. At the time, their No. 1 goal was to produce international swimmers. In the very first year of its inception, one of its swimmers, Bob Gavin, qualified in the 200-meter butterfly for the Olympic trials.

Stephens knew a swim club couldn't compete with the major universities, which have the advantages of scholarships and numbers of swimmers available, to make a mark at national championships.

"You pretty much can't do it, even if you have Michael Phelps on your team," Stephens said.

But, Stephens theorized, if a swim club could develop a handful of really good swimmers instead of focusing on team and relay championships, it could succeed. His mission statement worked.

By 1976, about a half-dozen NBAC swimmers qualified for the Olympic trials. The big breakout came in 1984 when Theresa Andrews twice struck gold in Los Angeles, winning the 100 backstroke and the 4x100 medley relay. Then came Nall with three Olympic medals in 1992 and Beth Botsford, the 100 backstroke champion and relay gold medalist in 1996. (Stephens was an assistant Olympic coach in Atlanta.)

Now it's Phelps and Hoff.

It certainly helps a swim club when you have athletes like them.

Hoff will continue to train with NBAC after Beijing. Although she can't compete for a collegiate team because she is a professional athlete, Hoff has decided to join the coaching staff at nearby Loyola College in Maryland and plans to take classes there. Her ultimate goal is to swim in five Olympics. After these Games, at just 19, Hoff will have already made it to two. Phelps, meanwhile, has said he wants to swim in 2012 in London.

When Bowman and Phelps return to Baltimore after these Olympics, more top-notch swimmers likely will join them. Although Stephens said he had "some ideas" about some swimmers who might relocate to the Charm City, he couldn't mention any names. He did say that he expects some professional, postcollege graduate swimmers to join.

Any of Phelps' fellow Wolverines?

"Well," Stephens said, "you never know. I think our numbers will continue to grow."

Even without Stephens at the helm, the philosophy of NBAC likely won't change. Bowman will oversee the whole club program, and Yetter will continue to coach the top swimmers.

This is a place where some changes have occurred (such as the addition of a rock-climbing wall as part of the swimmers' dry-land exercises), but the overall coaching philosophy has remained static. "I don't think any of us are really into fads," Stephens said.

Yetter comes by the NBAC code honestly. He swam at the club with Stephens' wife, Patty, as his coach. Murray Stephens was his high school coach.

Yetter admits he's a bit old-school as a coach.

"I think thinking outside of the box sometimes leads us astray," Yetter said. Later, he added, "Sometimes, we have an awesome athlete, and then we learn."

In Baltimore, it seems, there's been a whole lot of education.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.