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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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A swimming idol at 14, Megan Romano is tearing through the record books.
By BOB PUTNAM
Published July 20, 2005
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Megan Romano, who has made qualifying times in two Olympic Trials, poses after team practice at North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Megan talks with teammate Kelsey Krauss after the final of the 50-meter freestyle in Gainesville. She set the Junior Olympics record with a time of 26.68.
Megan Romano is used to coming home from swim meets with a bagful of medals. She has been doing it since she was 6.
She also is accustomed to dealing with the media. At 14, she's an old hand.
But nothing in Romano's experience prepared her for the tidal wave of attention this year.
She has signed autographs and had her picture taken with star-struck young swimmers. She even had an entrepreneur approach her parents, Tom and Rhonda, to ask for the rights to www.meganromano.com
But the biggest shock came last week after a meet in Gainesville. Romano's plan was to leave her hotel room surreptitiously. But as soon as she slipped out the door, she was greeted by an adoring fan.
That's her! That's her! That's Megan Romano the swimmer! She's my idol!
"I had no idea I was so well-known," said Romano, an incoming freshman at Northeast High in St. Petersburg. "It's cool that people look up to me."
Romano is everyone's "it" girl because she seemingly erases swimming marks every time she comes in contact with chlorinated water.
In March, she became the first swimmer in Junior Olympics history to set a record in each race she swam.
In June, she survived two Olympic trial cuts by finishing third in the 100-meter backstroke (1 minute, 3.79 seconds) and ninth in the 200-meter backstroke (2:17.58) at the FINIS Councilman Classic Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
At the same national meet, Romano, the lone Florida swimmer, surpassed a 27-year-old state record by placing third in the 200-meter freestyle in 2:02.84. The previous mark (2:03.12) was set by Stephanie Elkins, who swam for Stanford in 1982.
Next year, Romano will join Tampa Prep's Chelsea Nauta on the U.S. Junior National Team.
But is she on course to join Nicole Haislett, Brooke Bennett and Maritza Correia as the area's next female Olympic star?
"I'm not going to say she is going to be an Olympic swimmer right away," said St. Petersburg Aquatics' Fred Lewis, who also coached Haislett. "But she certainly has the potential."
* * *
Romano has been in the water since she was 10 months old, when her parents plunked her into their backyard pool in St. Petersburg.
"I would sing to Megan and float her in the pool," said Rhonda, 49, a public affairs director at WTOG, Ch. 44 before retiring in 2002. "She just seemed so athletic and so at ease in the water. It was only a few years later when she would dive down in the water and pick up toys from the bottom. I thought that was natural."
The backyard pool led to bigger things. Megan was taking lessons when she was 6. Soon after, she was hooked into the age-group swimming scene, competing for St. Petersburg Aquatics and accumulating certificates and ribbons.
But winning was not enough. Megan wanted to dominate. She gave up volleyball and basketball to focus on swimming.
Her parents were not used to this type of obsession. Megan's older sister, Michelle, was not a competitive swimmer.
Nevertheless, Rhonda and Tom now live by a rigid schedule that revolves entirely around the sport. Megan works out six days a week, including two practices a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On the double sessions, she lifts weights from 6:30-7 a.m., swims from 7-9 a.m. and swims again from 4-6 p.m.
That's just practice. Megan also swims in about 30 meets a year. This summer she has competed in New York, California and Indiana. Clubs cover part of the expenses, which can cost as much as $10,000 a year.
"I know all this is hard on Megan," said Tom, 44, an X-ray technician at Memorial Hospital in Tampa. "It's just as hard for the parents with all the traveling and expenses. But this is something that she wants to do and is good at it."
That devotion helped Megan become exceptional on turns and under water. She has worked on power strokes and developed a world-beating kick.
By putting it all together the past three years, Megan has left the competition behind, so much so that she only has the crowd left to push her home in most events.
"It's exciting that I've been able to improve so much the past few years," Megan said.
No one seems more excited by Megan's progress than Haislett (now Bacher, after her marriage), who took home three gold medals at the 1992 Olympics and was a six-time NCAA champion at Florida after starring at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg.
Haislett Bacher taught Megan last fall as a volunteer coach with St. Petersburg Aquatics.
"Megan has a tremendous amount of talent for her age," Haislett Bacher said. "She has beautiful strokes, an amazing kick that looks like a motorboat behind her and was real fun to train.
"She kind of reminds me of myself because she's very focused and driven. Actually, I don't think I was as good as her at that age. She's very versatile and could become a female version of Michael Phelps. She definitely has the potential to be an Olympic swimmer. But she just has continue to develop."
This year, Megan has grown to 6 feet. She has grown in other ways as well. She has become more socially involved with her peers, hanging out at the mall or Jet Skiing with friends.
Through swimming, she says, she has discovered herself.
"I like the traveling and being able to go different places," Megan said. "I've found where I want to be."
In June, she was on center stage after supplanting golden girl Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals (two gold) at the Athens Games, in the preliminaries of the 100 backstroke at the Councilman Classic Grand Prix.
Then in the final, Coughlin and Romano were in adjoining lanes. The two chatted briefly during a technical malfunction before the start.
"(Natalie) heard the announcer read my bio before the final and noticed I wanted to be in the Olympics in 2008," Romano said. "She also heard that my favorite swimmer was Mary DeScenza. But after talking to Natalie, she's one of my favorites, too."
In the final, the two were even after 50 meters. Then Coughlin found another gear and left everyone behind. Megan finished third.
"I was just glad to be on the medal stand," Megan said. "Afterward, Natalie said good job. I hope she's able to say that again in three more years."