In­duc­tion cel­e­brates ‘amaz­ing’ ef­fort

1994, 1995 NBAC women cap­tured na­tional team ti­tles

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

They were to gather at Satur­day’s Mary­land Swim­ming Hall of Fame in­duc­tion to share hugs, swap tales and take bows for hav­ing brought a na­tional ti­tle to Bal­ti­more in 1994. Back then, a septet of girls from the North Bal­ti­more Aquatic Club — some still in mid­dle school — stunned their col­lege-age ri­vals to cap­ture the women’s team ti­tle at the Phillips 66 Na­tional Cham­pi­onships.

The vic­tory by those young­sters, against more than 200 older teams, caused a big-time splash. More­over, the girls did it with­out win­ning a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual event, chalk­ing up points with run­ner-up fin­ishes in race af­ter race af­ter race.

Now, 24 years later, that NBAC team was among those due en­shrine­ment in a cer­e­mony at the Mt. Washington Con­fer­ence Cen­ter in Bal­ti­more.

Led by Anita Nall (17), the el­dest, and Beth Bots­ford (12), the youngest, the champs were full of moxie and mus­cle, with a bound­less love of swim­ming and an un­flag­ging buoy­ancy, both in the pool and out. A close-knit crew, they dyed their hair be­fore com­pe­ti­tions, painted their nails and waxed their eye­brows en masse. Once, they tried to pierce each other’s ears, with mixed suc­cess.

Such an­tics be­lied the depth of their de­vo­tion to the sport.

“Age-wise, we were young, but the level of com­mit­ment we put into ev­ery­thing was very grown-up,” said Bots­ford, a back­stro­ker who went on to win two gold medals in the 1996 Olympics. “Our train­ing was in­tense, some­times three work­outs a day. How fast we raced each other in prac­tice set us apart.”

Two years ago, Bots­ford found the team’s dog-eared work­out book from 1994. Read­ing it was a trip.

“I thought, holy-you-know-what, that was amaz­ing stuff that we did,” she said. “We ac­com­plished things in prac­tice that col­lege teams don’t do now.”

Though their coach, Mur­ray Stephens, drove them hard, “we had a blast,” said Whit­ney Phelps Flickinger, then 14. “We were the young’uns, but we were a tough, tough group. My brother, (28-time Olympic medal­ist) Michael, saw a film of our train­ing ses­sions and said, ‘I couldn’t have done that.’

“But I never dreaded it, even the three-adays, be­cause I knew when I got to the pool I’d see the other girls there. I wouldn’t have wanted to go through those times with any­one but them.”

At the na­tion­als, in Fed­eral Way, Wash., NBAC scored 229 points, de­feat­ing its clos­est ri­val by 46 points. All seven swim­mers placed in the top 10 in at least one event, in­clud­ing Whit­ney Met­zler (Tucker), an­other 1996 Olympian, Brit­tany White (Watkins) and Melinda Rehm (Ol­son). The vet­eran was Nall (Riches­son), who’d won a gold, sil­ver and bronze in the 1992 Olympics and who played mother hen to the brood on the road. It wasn’t easy.

“We thought we were com­plete rebels,” said Tucker, then 15. “Once, at the Olympic train­ing cen­ter in Colorado Springs (an old Army bar­racks), there was noth­ing to do af­ter prac­tice so we scaled the fence and went AWOL to get snacks at a 7-Eleven.”

She re­turned with a stash of Twiz­zlers and kiwi straw­berry Snap­ple.

In Colorado Springs, by hap­pen­stance, the girls shared a dor­mi­tory floor with the Univer­sity of Michi­gan men’s swim team — much to their coach’s cha­grin.

“Mur­ray did all he could to keep us away from them,” Tucker said. “He took us to ev­ery tourist trap around, from the Royal Gorge Bridge to Pikes Peak. We went hik­ing and white-water raft­ing. I’d never been so ex­hausted in my life. I mean, all we ever wanted to do was to play cards in the hall­way with those guys.”

Me­men­tos of their vic­tory, the women said, have been tucked away for years.

“It took me al­most two decades to re­al­ize how in­cred­i­bly unique that cham­pi­onship was,” said Ol­son, who was in eighth grade at the time. “Here were seven teens, most who couldn’t yet drive but who were ba­si­cally on top of the world.”

Six months ago, Ol­son opened a dusty bin of her medals for her chil­dren to use as “pi­rate’s trea­sure.” One award she with­held was a sec­ond-place medal (400-me­ter med­ley re­lay) from that cham­pi­onship meet.

Hold­ing it, Ol­son said, “I re­al­ized I was part of some­thing spe­cial — and proud of it. That team was my fam­ily. We spent so much time to­gether, I could have looked at any­one’s big toe and known who she was.”

To this day, how­ever, Bots­ford is ran­kled with me­dia cov­er­age of the team’s suc­cess, which fo­cused mostly on its youth.

“To win a na­tional cham­pi­onship with no col­lege-age swim­mers is pretty spec­tac­u­lar,” she said. “But the nov­elty of sto­ries like, ‘They’re so young that they don’t re­ally know what’s go­ing on’ drove me nuts. We knew ex­actly what it took to get to that point. I knew how hard I had to bust my ass ev­ery day, and so did the rest.”

Not long ago, Tucker said, her teenage son an­nounced that he’d swum 5,000 yards in one day.

“Mom,” he asked, “how much did you used to swim?”

“Be­tween 8,000 and 10,000 yards ev­ery af­ter­noon,” she replied. “And we had fun do­ing it.”

NBAC re­peated as na­tional champs in 1995 with the same lineup, mi­nus Nall. That team was to be hon­ored Satur­day as well. Other in­ductees in­clude Lenore Kight Win­gard, of Frost­burg, who won Olympic swim­ming medals in 1932 and 1936, and the Lake­wood Swim Club team, a Bal­ti­more main­stay in the 1930s and 1940s.

Also, the Hall of Fame was to award the first Joseph Cur­reri Mary­land Swim­ming Mil­i­tary Ser­vice Medals to the late Joseph Cur­reri and the late Allen L. O’Reilly. Cur­reri, who swam for NBAC and Loy­ola High, was a Spe­cial Forces com­mu­ni­ca­tions sergeant who died in 2007. O’Reilly, an­other NBAC swim­mer, was a Marines sergeant who died in 2004.

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