Aug. 08, 2008, 9:46 p.m. (ET)

BALTIMORE (AP) Christopher Plimpton's parents gave him a trophy as a reward for jumping off the diving board as a 5-year-old swimmer for North Baltimore Aquatic Club. But the moment turned extraordinary when Christopher's teammate, Michael Phelps, signed the trophy.

In a few weeks, Christopher, now 9, will join his 200 teammates in welcoming home the team's most heralded swimmers, Olympians Phelps and Katie Hoff, along with their two coaches, who are both helping lead the U.S. Olympic team.

Some say that makes NBAC the training ground for the best swimmers in the world.

Phelps is entering eight events in Beijing. He holds world records in five of them. Hoff is competing in at least six events and holds world records in two.

"It's ridiculous," NBAC founder Murray Stephens said. "I wanted to have some really successful experiences, but I never thought we'd have the No. 1 male and female swimmers."

Phelps, 23, trained at NBAC from age 7, and Hoff, 19, joined the club five years ago. After high school, Phelps moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to train with his NBAC coach, Bob Bowman, who had become head coach of the University of Michigan men's swimming team. When Hoff finished high school, she stayed in Baltimore to train with her coach, Paul Yetter.

Bowman and Phelps plan to return to Baltimore after the Olympics so Bowman can assume the position of chief executive officer of the aquatic club, making NBAC even more of a swimming superpower.

Stephens founded NBAC in 1968 with his partner, Tim Pierce, to train swimmers from early grade school through post-high school years. After one year of operation, the club had a swimmer, Bob Gavin, qualify for the 1968 Olympic trials.

Parents say, "'I'm bringing my kid to swim with you. ... Don't expect them to be a Michael Phelps.' And I say, 'Why wouldn't you want them to be a Michael Phelps?'" Stephens said. "'Why don't we work at it and see how it goes?'"

The secret, Stephens said, is to concentrate on long-term goals and train for important meets. When swimmers are young, that means not worrying about cutting time off every race. For older swimmers, that means training for national and international meets, often at the expense of winning races during high school or college seasons.

It's a formula that works. NBAC swimmers have participated in every Olympic trial since the club's founding, with its largest number yet qualifying this year - 17, not including Phelps.

The club's success has made it "a team of immigrants," said 17-year-old Greg Pelton, who moved with his family from New York to Maryland so he and his 14-year-old sister, Elizabeth, could swim for NBAC. They knew the team partially because of Phelps' and Hoff's success.

"It says that North Baltimore knows how to develop swimmers to ... the highest levels that have ever been reached," Greg Pelton said. "Swimming is a serious business here. It's a lifestyle commitment."

Lauren Hine, 14, commutes an hour each way from York, Pa.

"If you find out that all these Olympians are coming here, it kind of persuades you to join the team," she said.

For local parents, NBAC is a place where their children can learn to swim competitively.

"The view of ... NBAC is oftentimes 'for elite swimmers.' We never have really seen it that way," said Christopher's father, David Plimpton of Parkton, Md. "It's sort of like (an) important part of our community. ... I really feel like it's open to anyone who has a passion and interest for swimming."

Keeping elite swimmers like Phelps and Hoff on the same team as the rookies helps NBAC coaches communicate their message: If swimmers work hard and have patience, they can succeed.

"Getting in the same lane to have your practice when you're 8 or 9 years old that Katie Hoff is getting out of - (achieving success) seems real and doable," Stephens said. "It's like (having) a brother or sister."

Stephens, Bowman and Yetter swam in college, but never were Olympic swimmers. Stephens spent 30 years as a high school English teacher, coaching and writing poetry on the side. Bowman studied psychology and music in college, while Yetter majored in English.

That's why they're great swimming coaches, Stephens said.

"It's analogy. It's metaphor. It's rhythms," he said. "It's a lot of creative things that go into analyzing human performance."

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On the Net:

North Baltimore Aquatic Club: http://www.nbac.net

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