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Bureaucracy 1, teen swimmer 0

Record-setting Megan Romano, 14, had to choose between the state finals and a national team camp.

By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Megan Romano is one of the most versatile swimmers in the country.

If only USA Swimming and the Florida High School Athletic Association were as flexible.

Romano, a 14-year-old record-breaking freshman at Northeast High, had big plans this week.

On Thursday, she went to Colorado Springs, Colo., to participate in a mandatory camp for the U.S. Junior National Team, a three-day precursor to the Olympics.

She also hoped to swim in the high school region Saturday to qualify for the state meet Nov.18-19.

That will not happen.

USA Swimming refused to let Romano leave the camp early. The FHSAA is unwilling to grant her a waiver or reschedule its meet.

Romano still can compete at state in relay events if her teammates qualify.

"It was tough because I really wanted to do both," Romano said. "I was hoping to not only win my events at the state meet, but also break some national records."

Romano has made quite a splash in her high school debut. She owns Pinellas County's top marks in all but one event and has set records at every big meet.

At the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship, Romano set three individual records and helped a relay to a fourth. In the 200-meter freestyle, she cruised to victory in 1 minute, 47.74 seconds, shattering the 16-year-old record of 1:52.89 set by former Lakewood star Nicole Haislett, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

"There are probably about four individual events (200 free, 100 free, 500 free and 100 backstroke) where she would have had a 95 percent chance of winning," Northeast coach Bill Burrows said.

"Really, she would have had a very good shot of winning in any individual event. She's that good. I've never seen anything like her in 26 years of coaching. It's unfortunate and upsetting when you have two governing bodies in a sport that can't work together for an athlete."

Romano noticed there would be a scheduling conflict a few weeks ago when she received a packet from USA Swimming detailing the camp. She wanted to do both and thought of everything short of cloning herself. But the logistics and timing were major stumbling blocks.

USA Swimming and the FHSAA did not help.

"I was amazed by the audacity of it," said Rhonda Romano, Megan's mother. "I called USA Swimming, and they wondered why we were even having this conversation about high school swimming. I call the FHSAA, and they said that if my child was a more dedicated high school swimmer, I wouldn't have this problem.

"When Megan decided to swim high school, we told her that she needed to stick with it all the way through and be a good teammate. This was a tough choice for a child to make, and we didn't want her to let her teammates down."

Romano chose to go to Colorado Springs to train before competing against a strong field of Australian swimmers and juniors from Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand at the Victoria State Championships Jan.3-7 in Melbourne, Australia.

Swimmers qualified for the National Junior Team by having the top-ranked performance at a series of national-level meets in 2005 or by beating an automatic qualifying time at designated events. Girls must be 15 or younger at the time they are selected, boys 17 or younger.

At every Olympics since the inception of the program in 1989, at least one former National Junior Team member has qualified for the U.S. team. "Megan is probably the most versatile swimmer out there," said John Walker, high performance director of the national team division for USA Swimming. "Megan was one of only two girls to qualify in three events, and she did it in (more than one) stroke (100 free, 200 free and 100 back).

"This is a very big deal. We tried to work things out where there were not many conflicts. But unfortunately, there were a few. It's just a decision that the athlete has to make."

Besides Romano, two other Florida swimmers, Chelsea Franklin of Estero and Corrine Showalter of Sarasota, made the team. They also will not compete in region meets.

"These are elite athletes who we would love to have compete at our state meet," said Tamara Wilsey, the swimming administrator for the FHSAA.

"This is just a case where we have two governing bodies, which are trying to adhere to their schedules. We have these type of conflicts in every sport."

Meanwhile, Romano will train and wait to see how her teammates fare Saturday. "Hopefully, Megan gets the chance to compete with the girls again at the state meet in relays," Rhonda Romano said. "I also hope that this is a situation that doesn't come up again."

[Last modified October 28, 2005, 01:36:14]

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