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Tom Himes Has Coached Countless Swimmers to the Peak of Their Potential

The renowned North Baltimore Aquatic Club launched the careers of Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps and Beth Botsford—both of whom Himes coached when they were kids.
Coach Tom Himes stands poolside at Loyola University Maryland Fitness and Aquatics Center. —Photography by Christopher Myers

Tom Himes walks out of the quiet calm of his spartan office into the buzz of dozens of 12- to 14-year-olds milling about on the deck of the indoor pool at the Loyola University Maryland Fitness and Aquatics Center.

Wearing a white T-shirt with the letters NBAC and the words North Baltimore Aquatic Club below them, Himes carries a printout of the afternoon’s workout. The top of the sheet reads “NBAC CHALLENGE 3 PRACTICE THURSDAY MARCH 21, 2024, 5:00 PM–6:45 PM,” but really this could be any day of any week over the course of the more than three decades he has coached for the renowned swim club that launched the careers of Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps and Beth Botsford, both of whom Himes coached when they were kids.

As always, Himes, NBAC’s head coach and CEO, is meticulously prepared; the sheet breaks down the exact strokes, distances, and minutes allotted for each session into four blocks of time. In many ways he is a man of routine, and NBAC’s results have shown that his routines work.

At this point in Himes’ career, the numbers are staggering. He has coached swimmers to more than 750 national rankings, including 91 number-one rankings, and more than 550 state and area records, according to NBAC. In 2005, he was inducted into the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame, and last year he entered the International Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His name has become synonymous with coaching excellence—the Maryland Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year Award was renamed in his honor.

The kids, one somehow more sinewy and skinnier than the next, wear blue swim caps with “NBAC” on one side and “Paris 2024” on the other. After the Olympics in France, they’ll be replaced by ones reading “Los Angeles 2028.” This is aspirational, but given Himes’ record, not completely far-fetched.

The tweens and teens giggle, shout, and bounce from one cluster to another, as tweens and teens are apt to do. Himes, 67, is businesslike but not stern. They gather around him while he runs through the day’s practice plan, then eagerly jump into the water and start swimming laps.

This is the apex of youth swimming; during Himes’ tenure, NBAC has never lost a Maryland Swimming scored championship meet and is consistently recognized by USA Swimming as a top 25 age group club. The kids take practice seriously, which is why they train for generally an hour and a half to two hours, six days a week, 11 months a year.

Many of them hope to swim competitively in college, and a few dream of winning Olympic gold. Yet before practice and during drills, you’re hard-pressed to spot a kid without a smile on his or her face. Despite working so hard, it looks like they’re actually…having fun.

Julia Rommel is a 15-year-old whom “Coach Tom,” as she and many others call Himes, used to work with. At the time, she had an issue with her kneecap, which she thought might derail her career.

“He helped me after surgery get back to where I was,” she says. “I saw myself, when I was first trying to get back, not loving the sport as much. He got me back to where I was loving it again.”

Julia isn’t the only Rommel whom Himes has impacted. Her mother, Jen, swam for him 35 years ago.

“In my opinion, the definition of a good coach is someone who sets an expectation and then holds you to it. And Tom does that well,” Jen says. “Whether he’s being tough with you in the moment or he’s just being matter-of-fact, you know he cares. Even as a kid, I recognized that.”

Himes devotes 60 to 70 hours per week to the job and usually deals with some club business on his “off day.” Having left a career at the Department of Defense (he coached nights and weekends throughout the job), he doesn’t have to be doing this.

“This is about the kids,” he says. “I’m trying to keep it that way. It’s not about me. It’s not about the parents. It’s about them. They love it here. I don’t have to make them come to practice. They want to come to practice. And they know they’re going to have to work hard. I like watching them develop. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment to see a kid get better—whatever that better is.”

For a guy who has devoted much of his life to swimming, Himes doesn’t have an especially decorated background in the pool. The Baltimore native didn’t swim in college or high school; he stopped competing year-round around the age of 15. Yet he remained intrigued by the sport, and he began coaching full-time while attending the University of Baltimore. (He graduated in 1980 with a degree in business management.) After stints in Glen Burnie and at the Howard County YMCA, he was recruited to come to NBAC by the club’s co-founder, Murray Stephens.

“There’s so much more to swimming than swimming up and down the pool,” Himes says. “It teaches commitment, it teaches a work ethic. It’s just a nice challenge to teach the kids to get as much as they can out of the sport. You’ve got to train the kids not only physically, but mentally.”


From 1985 to 2002, Himes was the head age group coach at NBAC. He then left to coach other clubs and worked as an assistant coach at Towson University and UMBC before returning to NBAC in 2009. Among his pupils during his first stint was a 9-year-old Beth Botsford, who had just started swimming year-round. When she showed up to her first practice, she had no swim cap or goggles.

“I remember the warm-up alone was more than I had ever swam at one time in my life,” she says. “I think I made it through maybe half of it, and I got out and said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this.’”

Botsford recalls being in tears when Himes approached her and urged her to stick it out for at least two weeks. He saw something in the young swimmer that she did not see in herself.

“She was a mess when she first came here,” he says. “She swam sloppy, but she came back every day. She wanted it, and she worked hard. There’s no secret to this thing. The kids that work the hardest do the best. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not working hard, it’s only going to get you so far. And it’s the same thing the other way. You might not have a lot of talent, but if you work hard, you can get somewhere.”

Six months after Botsford started working with Himes, she broke a national record in the backstroke. Himes sat her down to talk about her future.

“My goal was to make the 2000 Olympics, and Tom was like, ‘You need to put 1996 on [that goal list],’” she says. “I will always remember that because I was only going to be 15 years old then. He just has so much wisdom.”

At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the not-yet-legal-to-drive Botsford won two gold medals, in the individual 100-meter backstroke and as a member of the women’s 100-meter medley relay team.

Himes’ motivational acumen has been well-documented, but Botsford also credits him with teaching her the importance of kicking. He’s always been an advocate of a strong lower body for swimmers, which is one reason why he knew he had someone special when he first saw Michael Phelps dart through the water. He coached the 23- time Olympic gold medal winner from ages 10 to 12.

“He certainly did a whole heck of a lot more after me than he did with me,” Himes says. “No one could have foreseen the unbelievable level that he reached, and I’m not going to suggest that I did.”

But it was when he saw 10-year-old Phelps do a 500-meter free kick (holding onto a board while kicking to propel yourself through the water) in under six minutes that Himes realized the boy was a special talent.

“That was probably one of the first things that he did that I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Prior to Michael, Himes coached Phelps’ sisters, Hilary and Whitney, both outstanding swimmers in their own rights. (At 14, Hilary had been the fastest distance swimmer in the country for her age group and Whitney was third in the world for the 200-meter butterfly.) After swimming for Himes for a year, Hilary moved to another coach before returning to him.

“Tom welcomed me back, which I [credit] to continuing my love for swimming. If I hadn’t gone back to Tom, I don’t know that I would have stayed with swimming,” says Hilary. “He was always just really warm and compassionate and a great coach. He was an important figure in my life.”

Hilary, like many of Himes’ former swimmers, has fond memories of Himes dressing up like Santa Claus during practice on Christmas Eve. (The only days NBAC doesn’t hit the pool are New Year’s, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.) The mustachioed Himes has the right look and disposition for the role.

“The younger kids were a little on the fence as to whether it was really Santa,” says Himes, who retired his Kris Kringle suit in 2021. “The older kids figured it out quickly, but I really never gave in to officially letting them know. The little brothers and sisters of team members really thought I was Santa.”


In 2015, Himes, whose two children are grown (his daughter, a former Division II All-American lacrosse player, is an occupational therapist; his son is a Catholic priest), began making plans to cut back on his coaching at NBAC as he and his wife of 38 years, Betty, were moving from Perry Hall to Pennsylvania.

So much for the best-laid plans. Nearly a decade later, he still commutes one hour to NBAC six days a week—he just can’t seem to drag himself away from the pool.

“His motivation is helping NBAC, helping his kids to be better,” says Chris Kaplan, who swam for Himes.

Now 47, Kaplan is the head coach and executive director of Monocacy Aquatic Club in Frederick.

“If a coach called him up and asked for advice, he’d be happy to help. If a coach asked him to come out and watch practices and give them some advice, he’d be there. He’s not in this for himself.”

None of the accolades or awards seem to have a particularly profound impact on the outwardly unassuming Himes.

“I’m honored and thrilled that people acknowledge what I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been around a lot of very good coaches and learned from them. But I just really like what I’m doing and I put everything I have into it.”

That’s clear as he walks the deck at practice, making a point to talk to as many kids as possible. Some get a light ribbing, a few receive gentle criticism, while others are offered words of encouragement.

“There is no question that the swimmers come first and foremost in everything he does,” Jen Rommel says. “There is an expectation not of perfectionism in any way, but that you’re going to bring your best every day.”

Because that’s exactly what you’re going to get from Tom Himes.