Article written and courtesy from Charles Hartley.
While growing up I used to hear about where all the fastest swimmers in the country were: Mission Viejo, California. It was the swimming mecca of America.
I don’t hear as much about Mission Viejo these days as a state that could make a strong case as the center of America’s swimming universe. And it’s not where you might expect.
This state is not in the South in the warm weather climate. It’s a place that’s cold in the winter. It’s not in the rolling hills just miles from the ocean like Mission Viejo. It’s part of a hectic, crowded, large and hyper-competitive metropolitan region.
Guess who’s from there?
Of course you know – the incomparable, inimitable and best swimmer who has ever lived, Michael Phelps.
Hailing from the Baltimore area, the human shark has whipped every Southern California kid who has ever swam, along with any others who cans swim year round outside such as Florida and Texas. Any swimmers in any country around the world can’t beat him either. So there’s that.
Mark Spitz, arguably the second greatest swimmer ever, grew up and swam in Arden Hills, and then Brian Goodman and Shirley Babashoff in the 1970s put Mission Viejo on the map, making the sport very California-centric for the better part of 30 years.
But Phelps put Maryland at the top of the heap.
While the superstar attempts to build on his 18 Gold Medals in the upcoming Olympics, there will be another spectacular American swimmer pursuing those same dreams. Her name is Katie Ledecky.
Guess where she’s from… Yes, Maryland.
A native of a suburb called Bethesda, she is favored to win medals in Rio de Janeiro in the 200, 400, and 800 freestyle relay events. She has risen to become, probably, the best female swimmer in the world.
Another member of the team will be Jack Conger. A Rockville, Maryland native, he will compete in the 200 meter freestyle relay. Conger is one of the best male swimmers in the world.
In the 1992 Olympics, Mike Barrowman, also from Rockville, captured the Gold Medal in the 200 meter breast stroke.
There is another swimming prodigy from yesteryear that definitely deserves a mention. His name is Clay Britt, probably the biggest swimming legend in Maryland history besides Phelps.
Born and raised in Rockville, he was an age-group swimming-record-breaking machine who went on to star for the University of Texas. He had a legitimate chance to win a medal at the 1980 Olympics had America not boycotted them for political reasons.
The rise of these Maryland-based swimmers to Olympic fame raises an obvious question: why Maryland?
There isn’t a totally rational explanation for this; it’s mostly a coincidence. The state just happens to be where global swimming sensations were born. Phelps would have been the greatest ever no matter where he was born.
As for the others, the common thread seems to be they lived in suburban Maryland in Bethesda and Rockville. For decades these have been upscale, upwardly mobile, competitive, and swimming-friendly towns.
I grew up in Bethesda and swam for Mohican Hills Swim Team in the Montgomery County Swim League. At the end of each season the fastest swimmers would race at the Rockville Municipal Swim Center, which was plush and high-end even in the 1970s.
Everyone in the league wanted to qualify for that meet so they could compete at that revered facility. Many could not because there were so many fast swimmers in the league. I was one of them. I made the qualifying time but so many others had better times I did not make the cut.
It was at that venue that I first heard and learned about Clay Britt, and swimming prodigy and legend.
At the age of eight I grabbed the meet program and turned the page that posted the meet records. At the age of 10, Britt’s name was next to the record for the 50 meter freestyle, 25 meter backstroke, 25 meter breast stroke, and 25 meter butterfly.
All of his times were so much faster than mine he seemed like an absolute mysterious person, so great it was awesome. Throughout his age-group swimming career he broke record after record after record. I read about his accomplishments constantly as a kid. Clay Britt was it.
At a meet filled with countless talented swimmers from Maryland, Britt proved again and again he was the best of them all. His times were so fast it was crazy. The guy stunned me.
Britt is the first Marylander I knew who was a premier, nationally ranked swimmer. Years later I heard about some other guy from Maryland who, it turns out, was even better than Britt.
I refer to Phelps, of course.
And there was Barrowman in 1992. And now Ledecky and Conger in 2016.
Maryland, my Maryland. How swift you are at swimming.