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."
More than 15,000 kids participated last summer in the Northern Virginia Swimming League, according to Chris Loeser, the league president; more than 9,000 took part in the Montgomery County Swim League, league president Sally MacKenzie said.
Said Dave Greene, who has coached for 25 years at RMSC, "When you look at the enormity of it, it's amazing."
Coaches say the summer leagues attract athletes who might never otherwise get in a pool. And once they are there, they are introduced to area clubs with rich histories, professional environments and experienced coaching. Twelve national club championship banners hang at the YWCA Fitness Center at Tyson's Corner, which was one of Curl-Burke's original locations. The Rockville Municipal Swim Center, meantime, boasts tony facilities designed just for swimmers: several pools, a workout room and five rows of bleacher seating around its main pool.
The cycle of success has stretched to other local clubs and beyond. Richmond-based NOVA of Virginia Aquatics is in fourth place in USA Swimming's Virtual Club Championships. Olympian Kate Ziegler, who began her career as a summer swimmer, trained in McLean with a local club called The Fish.
No other region of the country, not California, Texas, Florida or Arizona, boasts such a strong group of programs in such a geographically small region.
"It's a region," said Bill Gibson, the father of young RMSC star Andrew Gibson, "that's rabid in swimming."
The Gibsons would know. When they moved to Rockville from Japan five years ago, perhaps the biggest change for Andrew Gibson, then almost 7, came after he signed up for swim classes. Training sessions with the RMSC were longer, harder, and more frequent than anything he had experienced in Tokyo.
Though the workload at times was daunting, Gibson, who spent a recent Friday evening churning up the water with fellow rising star Harrison Gu and several dozen peers in a six-lane pool at RMSC, greatly appreciated the results he saw under Greene.
"I like our coach," said Gibson, named the outstanding male athlete among swimmers 10 and under by the Potomac Valley Swim League two years ago, "because he made me fast when I came here from Japan."
RMSC and CUBU also have employed largely the same staffs of coaches since they began operating. Jim Williams, who along with Bill Ballough founded RMSC in 1968, still coaches there. Rick Curl founded Curl Swim Club in 1978 with fellow coaches Pete Morgan and Jeff King, and all remain.
CUBU's most promising youngster is Janet Hu, who in recent months has set four national records in the 11-12 age group. Hu and her brother Philip, 14, began swimming at their community pool in Vienna in the Northern Virginia Swimming League.
"It's just really fun," Janet Hu said before a workout at the YWCA Fitness Center. "I like being with my friends, and I hope to go to the Olympics."
Because of their proximity, CUBU and RMSC are competitive, occasionally facing each other at big meets such as the club national championships or the annual Tom Dolan Invitational at George Mason University in December.
"There are a few swimmers [at RMSC] that I'm pretty good friends and pretty big rivals with," Philip Hu said. "When we're behind the blocks we always say, 'Beat RMSC.' This year, at the Tom Dolan, we got the closest ever in the team scoring. Hopefully next year."
Though the clubs are similar in many ways, they are operationally completely different. Montgomery County and the city of Rockville jointly run the RMSC; Curl-Burke, like North Baltimore Aquatic Club, is privately owned. That translates into a difference in fees. RMSC is, simply, less expensive.
"I think money, with certain families, has something to do with" where they swim, Greene said. "But I think that if kids like where they are swimming, and they like the coach they are swimming with, I don't think it really matters which club they are actually in. Both clubs are so good. There are fast swimmers on both clubs, and very good coaches. . . . Their kids and our kids bring out the best in each other."
Though RMSC has been more dominant in recent years, Curl-Burke has won 10 senior national team titles. They are likely to meet again in Orlando during this year's national club championships in March. After that, everybody takes a break, and the summer swim seasons get underway.
And a new wave of swimmers will be born.
"Both programs have definitely had their highlights," Greene said. "For two teams to be this close together and producing as much talent as they have, it's incredible."