The Nation's Talent Pool: A Pair of Clubs, Backed by Suburban Summer Leagues, Have Made D.C. a Swimming Hotspot

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pittsburgh prides itself on being a football town; St. Louis loves its baseball; and North Carolina worships college basketball. Washington and its suburbs, however, laden with sports enthusiasts of every ilk, have never been so easy to classify.

There is, however, one sport in which local athletes have quietly and perhaps surprisingly separated themselves from competitors across the country. The region has become the most successful youth swimming hub in the nation, in large part because of a pair of decades-old clubs anchored in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

The Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club (RMSC) and Curl-Burke Swim Club (CUBU) not only have produced gold-medal-winning Olympians, droves of Olympic Trials competitors and hundreds of collegiate swimmers, but they also for the second straight year are ranked first and second nationally among more than 2,000 swim clubs in the nation, according to a USA Swimming computer ranking that evaluates the results of club swimmers ages 11 to 18.

The North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which focuses more on elite swimmers such as Olympic stars Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, ranks 14th.

RMSC's and CUBU's place at the top of the computer ranking, which effectively measures U.S. clubs' depth and breadth of young talent, makes the region arguably the strongest swimming factory in the nation for its size, surprising given that, unlike in Florida, Arizona and California, outdoor pools are closed for eight or nine months of the year.

"This has always been a hot spot," said John Flanagan, a longtime coach at Curl-Burke. "Swimming goes back a long way here."

RMSC and CUBU each claim more than 1,200 members, making them among the largest swimming clubs in the country.

Rockville-Montgomery won the last two National Club Swimming Association spring championships, while Curl-Burke finished third last year, second in 2007 and first in 2006. Olympic gold medal winner Mike Barrowman trained at both clubs; Olympic champions Tom Dolan, Ed Moses and Mark Henderson called Curl-Burke home, as did Austrian Olympic medal winner Markus Rogan.

"It's still maybe a little bit forgotten or taken for granted how good the area really is for swimming, not just in pure numbers but also in the quality of talent coming out of here," Dolan said. "What [the rankings] tell you is how strong the depth is."

The size of RMSC and CUBU partly explains their success, as they have been able to cull great talent from broad-based memberships. But USA Swimming and local officials say there is more to it; they say a grand swimming tradition has evolved from the wildly popular neighborhood-based summer swim teams that grew up in the 1950s and now populate the Washington area. A by-product of rapid suburban growth and residential planning that called for the installation of pools at virtually every new community development, the competitive summer swimming tradition is absent in many other parts of the country.

The area's summer leagues have funneled hordes of talented swimmers into the more serious year-round programs at RMSC, CUBU and other clubs in much the way that baseball's minor leagues send their best players into Major League Baseball.

"The D.C. area has the most developed summer league program of anywhere in the country," said Pat Hogan, USA Swimming's managing director of club development. "There are other places that mirror what has happened in D.C., but the number of subdivisions that have summer pools and summer teams is greater in the D.C. area than anywhere else."

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