Bobby Murray was only 5 years old when he first envisioned his potential as a swimmer.

"I learned how to swim in a week," he said. "My instructor was really impressed. He told me I'd be an Olympic champion someday."

If Bobby Murray was white and a member of some exclusive suburban swim team, that prediction might not seem outlandish, even at such a tender age. But Murray is black - and blacks have not become world-class swimmers, especially if those who have learned to swim at the Takoma Park public pool.

Yet, just 12 years later, Murray is starting to make his first instructor look like a prophet. The potential he showed during those initial days in the water has gradually developed until now he is on the verge of becoming a top swimmer.

At the recent National Junior Olympic indoor meet, he finished second in the 100-yard freestyle. His best times during that event, 45.84 and 45.88, made him the nation's third-fastest high schooler this year and ranked him in the top 30 of all high school and college swimmers.

According to Swimmer World Magazine the Bible of the sport, a drop of another couple of tenths of a second and Murray would be in the Top 20.

"He's just a boy now," said Jane Stafford, Murray's coach on the Capitol East-St. Albans Sea Devils swimming team, "but by the time he finishes college, he'll be a man, with a man's strength. He'll be so much stronger that there is not end to his potential.

"Besides that, he wants to be a champion. He can't stand not to win. It's like having a mean streak, but in a nice way. He has a feel for the water that champions have. It's a gift that few are blessed with."

Stafford isn't the only one to recognize the potential of the 17-year-old. As soon as they saw his Junior Olympic times, college coaches suddenly began offereing him scholarships.

Now Murray has a choice of attending such schools as Michigan, Iowa, Houston and Johns Hopkins. He won't have any problems qualifying academically - he is an outstanding student who is finishing off his senior year in high school by taking five courses at Howard.

The sudden recognition over the last few weeks has left Murray slightly awed.

"I was surprised that the calls came in so fast," he said. "I never realized what recruiting was like. The coach from Iowa, he wouldn't let me off the phone with his sales pitch.

"This makes the work worthwhile, I've always wanted to be independent and this will help make it possible. Yoy really never realize what swimming can do for your until all this happens."

Murray attends the School Without Walls, a public high school in the district that, as he put it, "gives students a chance at an alternative education. Courses aren't restricted just to high school.

"I've had a chance to take courses at Walter Reed and NIH plus Howard. I've been able to find out what college is likely long before I had to go to one."

His swimming awareness has come about a bit slower. Murray was laboring around the 47-second mark in the 100 freestyle during all of last winter. He wanted to qualify for the national AAU meet, but couldn't get his time low enough.

Then suddenly he dropped over a second in one Junior Olmpic race, a remarkable achievement for a swimmer in Murray's bracket.

"I heard everyone at the meet go 'oooh' and 'ah' when they saw my time," he said. "I looked up and I Couldn't believe it. I never felt like that before. The race was something I was more relaxed, more dedicated. The atmosphere was just right for a good time."

As a result, Murray this area's male swimmer of the year, now finds himself "more enthusiastic" about those dreaded two-a-day workouts. He is convinced he can go faster - much faster - and the only way to prove it is to put in more practice time.

Murray is 6-foot3, a good size for swimmer, but he weighs just 178 pounds. He will be placed, he's sure, on a weightlifting program in college in order to increase his strength and speed.

When he is lifting those weigths, he might think at times about conversations he has had with Sea Devil teammate Fred Evans, the nations leading black swimmer.

Evans, who attends Chicago State, is the first black swimmer to win an NALA championship and an NCAA Division II title. But so far, he has been unable to take either an NCAS Division I or AAU crown.

"We'd like to put to end all that foolishness about blacks not being able to swim," said Murray. "What Fred has done has proved that wrong, but maybe some people still need convincing.

"I know we both want to make the 1980 Olympics very badly. It's a great goal to have."