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    Swimmer is back with a vengeance

    A Clearwater 18-year-old does well in his first big meet since the Olympic Trials, buoying his hope for the 2004 Olympics.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000

    [Times photo: Jamie Borchuck]
    Robert Margalis of Clearwater tries to swim 100,000 yards -- nearly 57 miles -- a week at North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg. He will enter the University of Georgia next month.
    ST. PETERSBURG -- The comeback has started.

    Robert Margalis, an 18-year-old St. Petersburg Aquatics swimmer, barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team this year.

    But 31/2 months after disappointment at the Olympic Trials, Margalis is back making a mark in high-caliber international competition.

    He won the 1,500-meter freestyle and the 400-meter individual medley at the United States Open in Auburn, Ala., this month. His time in the 1,500 -- 15 minutes, 3.04 seconds -- set a meet record.

    The Clearwater resident also won the men's high-point award after adding two second-place finishes (200 individual medley, 400 free) and a third-place (200 free).

    For a guy with his sights on the 2004 Olympics, it was a good re-entry. The U.S. Open, always a major meet, drew five U.S. Olympians and several from other nations.

    "I'm pretty happy with my first big meet since the trials," Margalis said. "It was a good thing to let me know how I'm doing at this point. ... It's a good stepping stone."

    At the trials in August, the 1,500 free was the last race. It was also the last chance to make the Olympic team for Margalis, who earlier had finished third in the 400 free and fifth in the 400 individual medley and had reached the finals in the 200 individual medley.

    But the 1,500 was not to be the magic race. Margalis finished third -- and only the top two make the team.

    "When I hit the wall, I knew I was third. I almost couldn't comprehend it," Margalis said.

    "I went there thinking it was almost a technicality that I'd be making the team. But I came home and I was an alternate, so I continued training a little bit. I never disliked swimming or wanted to stop swimming and be bitter. It's just something that happened and I can't do anything about it."

    Except keep on striving.

    "This is a guy who really epitomizes if at first you don't succeed, you try even harder," said Fred Lewis, Margalis' St. Petersburg Aquatics coach.

    Margalis' dedication is Olympian in itself. For example, he withdrew from Clearwater High School to devote himself to training.

    After leaving high school, Margalis got an equivalency certificate and will enter the University of Georgia next month. A swimming scholarship is part of the payoff for Margalis' long hours in the pool.

    In a typical week, he trains for 11/2 hours four weekday mornings and 21/2 hours every weekday afternoon. On Saturday mornings, he's in the pool for three hours. He takes Sundays off -- unless there's a meet.

    Margalis aims for 100,000 yards of swimming weekly -- nearly 57 miles.

    "I've done it for so long, it's become part of my everyday life," said Margalis, who rises at 4:30 a.m. to make the 20-mile-plus drive from Clearwater to North Shore Pool, where SPA is based.

    "I wouldn't call anything a sacrifice, because swimming is what I love to do. But I did leave high school early, and I've lost out on a whole lot of sleep," Margalis said.

    Perhaps surprising to non-athletes, Lewis said he thinks that even more training time is possible for his protege.

    "How many hours in a day would a concert pianist practice?" asked the coach. "If you're trying for Juilliard (School of Music), would you practice, what, eight hours a day? I think there's still plenty of room in there."

    "People say swimmers and other athletes overdo it, but athletics is an art, just like ballet," Lewis said.

    Here's how the practice pays off: At the U.S. Open, Margalis swam his personal best of 15:03.04, compared to 15:13.59 at the trials. Eighteen months ago, he was swimming the distance in 15:57.

    Once again, he'll make the 1,500 a target event for the 2004 Olympics. And gold will be on the line in more than the usual way.

    For the first time, USA Swimming will award $1-million to any U.S. swimmer who wins the gold medal in the 1,500 and sets a world record in doing so. The current record is 14:41.7, set in 1994.

    For all his success, Margalis is a modest person who's popular with other SPA swimmers.

    "There's no mysterious aura about him," said Paul Zimmerman, whose sons, Paul, 11, and Patrick, 7, are SPA swimmers. "He's just a regular guy to the younger kids."

    It's no big thing for one of the boys to walk up and move Margalis' equipment to make room on a dressing room bench, Zimmerman said.

    "He's just a wonderful role model for my kids," said Zimmerman, who noted that a pecking order often associated with youngsters on sports teams doesn't exist at SPA sessions.

    "They think they're on the same plane as Robert. How the heck did he do that?" said Zimmerman.

    Still, there's a certain feeling about practicing with a superstar.

    Zimmerman said his oldest son sometimes has a report.

    "He'll say, "Dad, I got to swim next to Robert today!' "

    When you think about it, not too many can make that claim.

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