Born and raised in the Baltimore area, Ian Silverman won a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and is a favorite for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team.
Each morning, roommates Jessica Long and Cortney Jordan wake up in their Baltimore apartment and head to their respective swim practices.
Long, a 12-time Paralympic champion, makes her way to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. There, she swims with legendary head coach Bob Bowman and several U.S. Olympians. She may run into fellow Paralympic gold medalist Ian Silverman or two-time Paralympic medalist Rebecca Meyers, both of whom train at NBAC with a different coach.
Jordan, an eight-time Paralympic medalist, heads to the Loyola University Maryland pool to swim with Paralympic champion Bradley Snyder and their coach Brian Loeffler, who now coaches a number of Paralympic athletes.
Loeffler also once coached Meyers and two-time Paralympian Joe Wise as part of the Loyola University swim team. Joining his program next year at Loyola will be two more Paralympians, Alyssa Gialamas and McKenzie Coan, who currently train in Illinois and Georgia, respectively.
That makes seven of the 34-strong 2012 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team who have picked Baltimore as their home and training hub through the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Countless others called Baltimore home for other Games, some training under the tutelage of Andrew Barranco, named the 2010 Paralympic Coach of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee.
So in a town known for Paralympic greatness, what’s the draw?
The North Baltimore Aquatic Club
Long, Silverman and Meyers all grew up in Baltimore, and all have been swimming competitively for as long as they can remember.
Though they learned to swim with age-group and summer leagues, all three saw the North Baltimore Aquatic Club as the ultimate destination to follow their competitive goals. After all, it was the club that trained legendary Olympians – the likes of Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt and Beth Botsford.
Silverman, who has mild cerebral palsy, started swimming with NBAC when he was 8 years old – long before he even knew he was eligible for the Paralympic Games. Now 19, Silverman trains primarily with NBAC high performance coach Erik Posegay.
“It’s been a great experience for me,” Silverman said. “We have a great training facility, great coaches and trainers, and the group that I’m swimming with right now is filled with a bunch of great training partners. They push me and motivate me, and I know some of the hard sets we do together I wouldn’t be able to do alone.”
After spending her freshman year on the Loyola University swim team, Meyers now trains full-time at NBAC as well. She, like Silverman, is coached by Posegay.
Long also grew up in Baltimore, but she just joined the NBAC program last fall. After spending three years as a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and previously training with Barranco, Long spoke with NBAC head coach Bob Bowman about moving home and joining the elite squad.
“As a little girl, I always wanted to swim on that team. It was just a dream of mine, actually,” Long said. “I love that we are expected to be elite athletes 24/7, 365 days a year. Every day, I know I’m going to be pushed to my limit. I’m the only Paralympian in my group – so it’s fun, but it’s also a whole lot of work.”
Living with Jordan helps keep her motivated, too.
“What I think is so special about our training situation is that we’re on different teams. I have my swimming and my friends on that team, and Cortney has her team, and we kind of meet in the middle,” Long said. “We both share competing for U.S. Paralympics, and we both ‘get’ each other when we’re tired.”
Brian Loeffler and Loyola
Aside from NBAC, there may be a bigger reason for Baltimore’s growing para-swimming hub. Jordan, Silverman, Meyers, Snyder, Wise and several others have furthered already successful careers because of Loeffler.
Loeffler, who is the head coach of the Loyola University Maryland Swimming & Diving Team, found himself connected with the Paralympic Movement somewhat by accident.
In 2007, a blind swimmer named Philip Scholz joined the Loyola swim team – and changed Loeffler’s life.
Loeffler, committed to coaching each of his athletes to their highest potential, researched blind swimming. He learned about tapping, technique and classification, and he became an expert on the Paralympic Games. Ultimately, Scholz earned a spot on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Team, competing in five events.
Loeffler was hooked on the Paralympic Movement – and he didn’t stop at Scholz.
In 2012, Navy Lt. Bradley Snyder moved to Baltimore for an internship. The former collegiate swimmer had recently lost his vision in an IED blast while serving in Afghanistan, and he was looking to return to the pool.
Snyder needed a coach in Baltimore, and Loeffler had a new found expertise in blind swimming. It was a perfect match that led to three medals, including two gold, for Snyder at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“It was uniquely fortuitous,” Snyder said of his and Loeffler’s relationship. “Brian and I get along really, really well. At this stage in my life I’ve been swimming for a long time, and there are a lot of age group coaches who kind of treat you like a kid. I’m 30 years old, and I’ve been to war and back twice. Brian doesn’t treat me like a kid, and it’s awesome. He allows me a great degree of responsibility, but he’s also hard on me at the same time.”
After helping Snyder launch his Paralympic career, Loeffler’s expertise in Paralympic swimming has extended from athletes with visual impairments to those with a variety of Paralympic-eligible disabilities. He recently began closely working with Jordan, who has mild cerebral palsy, and Wise, who has a muscular disorder that affects his legs, hips, lungs and abdominals. Jordan medaled at the 2008 and 2012 Games under other coaches while Wise also competed at those Games.
“Brian does a lot of research,” Jordan said. “He knows the rules, he knows my competitors, and he knows how to fix my stroke to work with my body the best. Since I do have a disability, he knows what limitations I have, and he tries to work against those the best he can by changing my stroke in a way that an able-bodied swimmer might not do.”
In fact, Loeffler identified Silverman and Meyers as potential Paralympians before they were aware of that possibility themselves. He encouraged them to get classified, and both went on to medal at the 2012 Games.
“Six months in advance of London, Ian didn’t know he was eligible,” Snyder said. “Then he comes home with a gold medal, and now he’s going to the University of Southern California and is going to compete at the Paralympic and NCAA Division I level.”
And now, the word has gotten out about Loeffler. He attended the London 2012 Games as an assistant coach for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team, and he helped coach the national team at the 2011 Para-Swimming Pan-Pacific Championships and the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships.
“Brian touches people’s lives in a really unique way, and I think it’s just because he’s such a magnanimous guy,” Snyder said. “He truly lives being a good person. He gets out there every day, and he’s just kind of building this little Paralympic empire.”
That “empire” has paid off for Jordan, who recently broke two Pan American records at the 2014 Spring CanAm in Miami. Meyers and Silverman broke world records at that same meet.
Moving to the Baltimore area, Jordan said, is one of the best decisions she has made for her athletic career.
“I can definitely tell that my training is working, and I think it has a lot to do with the people that I’m surrounded by,” Jordan said. “It’s crazy how this hub has happened so quickly. I feel like everyone has just all of a sudden moved to Baltimore. But I’m really glad they did, because now this is like my family – and it’s good to have family out here.”