On an early Monday afternoon in mid-April, Paul Yetter strips naked, showers, and then lies on his back, floating like a cork in the pitch dark atop four feet of heavily salted water heated to skin temperature, around 93 degrees. He only has about 10 minutes to spare before driving three miles to get from his house to swim practice at the Meadowbrook pool in North Baltimore, where he coaches the senior elite group of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC). But he stays in the isolation tank for 15.
"When you're in the tank," he says later, "it doesn't matter if you're late to anything."
Yetter arrives at the pool glassy-eyed and supremely relaxed (and more or less on time). The group's regular practice isn't scheduled for a couple of hours, but Yetter has come early to run a workout for his star athlete Katie Hoff, who, at 19, has already been to one Olympics, won half a dozen world championship gold medals, and signed a 10-year contract with the swimwear company Speedo. Later that day, Yetter, who was himself an NBAC swimmer in high school, will fly to Chicago to receive the Developmental Coach of the Year award from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). He'll be joined by Hoff, who is appearing in Chicago alongside other national team members at a USOC media summit for this summer's Beijing Olympics.
Yetter, who has dark, cropped hair and a lean and athletic build, spends several minutes explaining to Hoff her goals for a 52-minute warm-up set he'd written on a white board. (Today's focus: breaststroke.) She nods and asks a couple of questions in a low voice, then pulls her goggles from her forehead to her eyes, and dives in.
Hoff is one of the best swimmers in the world. A large photo of her, waving to fans at a competition, hangs on the Meadowbrook wall alongside blown-up images of other former Olympians from the team, including her predecessor, 23-year-old Michael Phelps, who won six gold and two bronze medals in Athens and could, almost improbably, do better in Beijing. Hoff may be a superstar, but at Meadowbrook, she is just another pair of arms and legs, wheeling up and down the pool. Indeed, on this afternoon, a heavyset middle-aged man who squints intently at Hoff's lane as he walks down the deck isn't, it turns out, gawking at a celebrity but looking for a place to swim himself.
The North Baltimore Aquatic Club trains out of an unremarkable, squat building under the Kelly Avenue Bridge, 10 miles north of downtown. It feels a little isolated, perhaps fitting for a team that stands alone in its success: NBAC hasn't lost an age-group meet in Maryland since the late 60's, a couple of years after it was founded by head coach and CEO Murray Stephens. At the state championships this February, the team scored nearly three times more points than the second-place finisher. It has put at least one swimmer on the Olympic team in five of the last six Games—and its Olympians don't just go, they win. Some of the best coaches in the country, like USA Swimming coaching mentor Jon Urbanchek, call NBAC "the number-one club in America."
So how did it get this good? Most observers point to Stephens, a sometimes self-promoting figure who speaks brusquely and preaches fierce individualism.
Stephens hopes the club can stay on top for decades, but, he says, "I'm sure as hell not going to be the one to do it."
At 62, after more than 40 years of working up to 70 hours a week and rarely taking a vacation, Stephens is phasing out of the business of elite competitive swimming in north Baltimore. This fall, he'll put the club in the hands of the next crop of coaches including Paul Yetter and former NBAC senior coach Bob Bowman (who, with Michael Phelps, will return from the University of Michigan)—coaches he's groomed not in his image, exactly, but to at least share his view: We can be the best in the world. Watch us try.
Swimming is an almost defiantly individual sport. A swimmer deigns to compete only within his own cordoned-off lane. He need never concern himself with what others think, as his only judge is the clock. And, with the exception of relays, he doesn't count on teammates for assistance. For Murray Stephens, the self-reliance that competitive swimming demands is not merely a description of what the sport looks like, it's a metaphor for life as he believes it ought to be lived—without handouts, without complacency or compromise, and without having to answer to anyone. Swimming, to Stephens, is a microcosm of life itself.
"Team sports—they don't like to hear this—are game playing as opposed to athletic and human performance development," says the nearly bald but still rugged Stephens, as he watches a group train at Meadowbrook. "In [swimming], you're performing a skill all the time. In basketball or football, you may never touch the ball. Here, you are propelling yourself through the water with all your limbs and heart and soul in every millisecond, and there's no getting out of it. It's pretty much all about the intellectual, emotional, physiological organism striving to improve itself. It's about evolution."
Stephens gestures to the pool with his stopwatch. "How many times has someone propelled themselves through the water as fast as Michael Phelps in history? Well, nobody, right? We're finding out what the human body can do."
If Stephens makes it sounds like NBAC is a kind of science experiment, in some ways it is.
After graduating from Loyola College, where he won a couple of conference championship titles in freestyle events, Stephens decided he wanted to coach professionally. It was the mid-60's, a time when many of the best swimmers in the country came out of California. The Santa Clara coach, George Haines, was working miracles with his team. "George was interested in developing young athletes to the international swimming level," says Stephens, "and he wasn't interested in anything else."
In 1964, Haines put 13 swimmers on the Olympic team, and they came home with more than a dozen medals. Stephens admired Haines and wondered why there couldn't be a place for similar swimming excellence on the East Coast. He approached the coach of his former club about working with them, but was rebuffed, so he and a college friend, Tim Pierce, started their own team, NBAC, in 1967. (His partner bowed out after a few years.) Swimmers trained out of Loyola High School, where Stephens started teaching English in 1969. By their second year, the team was beating Stephens' old club, which hadn't lost a local competition in decades.
Stephens was a typical "old school" coach in many ways: He was excitable, he yelled and sometimes threw things, he made his athletes do sets over again if they failed the first time. But from there, he made his own rules. In particular, he wasn't interested in doing what many other teams in the region did, which was focus their training and racing on winning local-area competitions. Stephens was unwilling to alter his program to fit around a competition schedule that didn't, in his view, help his swimmers progress as far as possible.
"We would often not swim a meet until the first week of December to focus on training," says Bowman, who joined NBAC as Stephens' assistant in 1996 and mentored Phelps through the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. It didn't matter if, say, a kid had the chance at a local meet to break a record in his age-group just before he had a birthday. If Stephens deemed that the team's season was over, it was over.
"Despite that fact," says Stephens, who's not shy about talking about his successes, "we've obviously broken more national age-group records than anybody."
Stephens has always been a student of the sport. He's read the books (like coach James "Doc" Counsilman's The Science of Swimming from 1968), he's gone to the coaching clinics, he's sought out new studies on nutrition and injury prevention, and he's watched closely what the best swimmers were doing on their turns and with their kick off the wall. But he's never been interested in the latest trend unless it worked at home with a particular swimmer. This is a key ingredient in the NBAC stew: the individualized approach to coaching. Stephens is great at planning what a swimmer needs to do to achieve a goal, and then making it happen. Yetter, who talks to his swimmers one-on-one before and after practices to set time goals or just check-in, calls this ability to motivate individual swimmers "the best thing Murray has done."
If individual attention on NBAC meant giving Michael Phelps his own lane, so be it. If it meant a group's basic training program was sometimes built around Katie Hoff, well, the argument was that emulating the best could only help the other swimmers.
These methods might irritate parents who'd like their kid to break a national age-group record, or who don't want to see another swimmer get special attention. But coaches at NBAC don't have to worry much about parents. Most swim teams in the U.S. are either at high schools or in organizations like the YMCA, or they're "owned" by parent-run boards of directors who make decisions about everything from buying equipment to hiring coaches. Because Stephens has always owned the club, he dictates policy.
"Parents are tough," says Kathleen Morris, whose son and two daughters swim on NBAC and who takes over as club president in the fall. "They have their own agendas. They question things, but sometimes they don't know what the coaches know. The coaches [at NBAC] have a vision, and they follow through. If they tell me what group my kid should be in, then I have to believe they've thought that through. They see the kids every single day."
At NBAC, parents and swimmers can attend "Team Day" activities and other meetings, where they learn what to expect and hear speakers like Debbie Phelps (Michael's mom) talk about their experience. (Ironically, Stephens notes that Phelps' and Hoff's success can actually be a deterrent, making some parents worry about the amount of time the sport drains and the pressure it puts on kids.) But overall, parents just drop kids off.
"There's no Little League father; Murray wouldn't allow that," says USA Swimming's Urbanchek. "It's the number-one reason it's the best program in the country. Murray's idea was, if you don't like it, there's a club down the road."
In 1984, Stephens produced his first Olympian, Theresa Andrews, who won two gold medals in Los Angeles. Anita Nall became a world record holder in 1992 and won a gold, silver, and bronze at the Barcelona Olympics, and Beth Botsford won two golds at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Meanwhile, Stephens was acquiring pools and property and making plans to expand the team. In 1987, he bought and renovated (largely himself) Meadowbrook, an outdoor pool in north Baltimore. In 1994, he started building the indoor 50-meter pool adjacent to the outdoor one. Yetter, then a recent college grad and a swimmer in Stephens' group, worked at the pool taping fire sprinklers before the ceiling was painted and placing gutters in the tile floor.
After the 1996 Olympics, Stephens quit teaching high school to focus on his growing business, which by 2000 included an outdoor pool he bought in nearby Harford County, an indoor pool he bought in Lancaster, PA, and several NBAC satellite groups renting space. Stephens had plans to further expand, but he found that not everyone wanted what he wanted or even believed they could get there. In both Harford County and Lancaster, he says, "[They were] very focused on short-term accomplishments, very focused on being high-school Harry or high-school Harriet." Stephens has always wanted more than that. He sold the Pennsylvania pool in 2004 and shut down the Bel Air training group earlier this year. In 2000, realizing that he couldn't run a business and focus on his athletes, Stephens appointed Bowman NBAC's head coach.
"That's one of Murray's biggest strengths, that he's taken his ego, he's put it aside, he's let other people do the deal so that the team could continue to grow," says Yetter. "Because if Murray had just continued on as senior coach, it wouldn't have happened the way it's happened over the last eight years."
Probably not, but Stephens's mark is still on many decisions made by the team. The cadre of coaches on the team also largely shares Stephens' values, which can be found in Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (Stephens and his coaches have all read or discussed them), and which can, in part, be summed up by one of Stephens's favorite quotes: "We can do this ourselves."
The other part, of course, is the belief that competitiveness is healthy and should be celebrated. "My 13-year-old cousin isn't allowed to play dodgeball [in his school] because there's a 'loser,'" says Scott Armstrong, a senior NBAC coach. "Being excellent doesn't mean you participated; it means you did something special. We're actively protecting excellence."
Though Paul Yetter may share these ideals, he doesn't talk in such gung-ho terms, as though on a mission. In conversation, he speaks in calm, low tones, without urgency, in a mild Southern twang. The team's legacy of winning—not to mention the success of Hoff or any of his other up-and-coming swimmers (many of whom have been top in their age-groups in the country)—seems to neither greatly excite nor agitate him. He is young (32), but not brash; male, but not alpha. During practices, he smiles a lot, cheers on his swimmers—who range in age from 14 to 19 and whose numbers fluctuate between half a dozen and about 15, depending on the practice—and, in many ways, talks to them more like a supportive colleague than a commander.
"You always see him running up and down the pool deck, cheering us on, getting us psyched," says Felicia Lee, who at 16 has already twice been a national champion.
He'll join them in sets of squats in the weight room; tell them they should "let it flow," not thrash, in the water; and remind them of their own and each other's "awesome" performances in past workouts. Yetter also prefers not to yell.
"The last time I went off, in November, I told them I'm done pulling them," he said in April. "If [the motivation] is not there, I'm not going to pull it out."
But he does pull it out; he has to. He's coaching some of the best swimmers in the country, and many of them, like Hoff, Lee, 19-year-old Dan Madwed, 17-year-old Brennan Morris, and 14-year-old Liz Pelton, moved from out of state with their families to swim with NBAC, and to win.
Mention to Bob Bowman that Yetter comes off as almost unnaturally calm, and he says, "Yeah, outwardly." And so it's not surprising to hear that Yetter's disposition has gotten some outside help. A couple of years ago, he spent $11,000 on that isolation tank, an 8-foot long, 4-1/2-foot-wide basin filled with warm water infused with 800 pounds of salt. For the first year he owned it, he lay in the tank for an hour every day.
"You feel like you're floating in space," says Yetter, who now gets in about twice a week. "I want to be positive and happy and fun and knowledgeable. I want to have everything ready to rock when the kids get here. And that takes a lot of emotional, personal energy that's hard to maintain on a day-to-day basis. The tank basically helps me keep my [stuff] together. I come in and I might look like I'm in another planet, but I am on it."
Yetter knows he's a different coach from Stephens and even Bowman (who says he's old school and "hard core"), and that it's a different era. When Yetter swam on NBAC with Anita Nall and Beth Botsford, he watched as they hit a peak in their mid-teens and then faded away. He, too, quit the sport early. Today, more than 35 years after Title IX gave more women the chance to play college sports, it is now common for swimmers—men and women—to compete well into their 20s. And Stephens' old-school approach is now less widespread, less accepted. ("Today's athletes will not respond to yelling and screaming," says Urbanchek. "You have to send them a text message if you want them to respond.")
Yetter says his more subdued style is what works for him—and his students. He wants to win, yes. "He'll go above and beyond in every way," says Hoff. But he doesn't expect athletes to defer to him just because he's in charge.
"I want these guys when they're done swimming to feel good about what they've done, and I want them to enjoy the process," he says. "I want to offer them positive energy. I want them to be different from what I got out of it. I don't respect coaches just because they're coaches, so I don't expect athletes to respect me just because I'm a coach. I have to earn it. I have to earn it every day."
As for Stephens, he stands behind his style, even while acknowledging that Yetter and his younger colleagues have more of a knack for communication. "If you're going to be good at [coaching], you just have to be really good at talking to kids," he says. "Paul's real good at it—better than I am." But then, in true Stephens fashion, he points out that he didn't have the luxury of just coaching back in his day. He was working as an English teacher and building a competitive program, plus he was married with four kids. (Yetter lives with a girlfriend but has no kids.)
"I always say it's hard to make money and swim fast at the same time," Stephens chuckles.
Now it's up to the next generation to try.