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In 400 IM, Margalis watches historic feet

OMAHA, Neb. — Fast and faster, the two men cut through the water like something you have never seen. Really, like something no one has ever seen.

Stroke measured against stroke, kick measured against kick, they skipped across the water, so rapid that the matchup looked something like a shark attempting to outrun a torpedo. In the history of the 400-meter individual medley, there has never been a race such as this.

Think about it like this: No one in the history of the event has swum faster than Daytona Beach's Ryan Lochte on Sunday night.

Except for Michael Phelps, who happened to be doing it in the next lane.

Talk about your fast starts. In the first final of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Phelps and Lochte, a former Gator, turned the existing world record into so much shattered glass. Phelps, the reigning rock star of the sport, managed to win in the end, but not before Lochte had turned their rematch into a can't-miss competition at the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

It was incredible stuff, really, with Phelps surging out to a record pace, daring anyone to catch him, and Lochte having the audacity to pass him at the three-quarter mark, and with Phelps chasing him down in the final 100 meters.

And if you thought the race looked fast from your perspective, well, consider how it looked from Robert Margalis' viewpoint.

From there, it must have looked a lot like feet disappearing in the distance.

For Margalis, a swimmer from Clearwater, this is the way the Olympic trials always seem to work. For all the miles he has swum, he always seems to be a few feet short of a spot on the team. For all the years he has competed, another swimmer always seems to be a few seconds faster.

This time, when the race was over and Phelps was punching the water in excitement, Margalis lingered in the pool for a moment, staring up in near awe at the times on the scoreboard. Phelps swam 4:05.25? Lochte swam 4:06.08? How is a guy supposed to compete with that?

Oh, do not feel too bad for Margalis. True, he finished in third place again, and for the third time in his career he was one spot shy of making the Olympic team. But how bad can a guy feel when he finishes eight seconds behind history?

"I'm a swimming fan as much as I am a swimmer," Margalis said, shaking his head. "I'm happy for those guys. That's absolutely incredible. It was a fun thing to be a part of. It was the fastest race that anybody has ever seen."

He chose this, you know. Margalis could have taken a look at Phelps and Lochte and decided, on second thought, that the 400-freestyle final was a much better place to be.

That's the thing about Margalis, however. As his father, Bob, says, Margalis is fearless in the pool.

"It's my best event," Margalis said. "It's the most fun to swim."

That, Margalis will tell you, is the point. Oh, there was a time, a thousand days and a million laps ago, that this would have been devastating. Back then, Margalis wanted so badly to make the Olympic team that he thought he would be incomplete if he did not. No more.

"Absolutely not," Margalis said. "I'm living the dream. I haven't been to an Olympics, but I've done almost everything else there is to do. I'm still having fun doing what I'm doing."

These days, Margalis swims so he can keep on swimming. Even at 26, time will not chase him out of the pool.

"It's just so tough to make the Olympic team," Bob Margalis said. "If Robert swam for another country, he would probably be going to his third Olympics."

Sunday night was a perfect example. Margalis swam the second-best time of his life, 4:13.85. Only 16 men, eight of them Americans, have posted faster times (in 35 races). As recently as 1991, Margalis' time would have been a world record.

And still, he was not close.

These days, all the records seem to belong to Phelps. This is the sixth time Phelps has lowered the record.

This time it took a record to win. It was not until the final turn — when Phelps got a better push off the wall — that he was able to overtake Lochte.

"I remember looking at Ryan and thinking, 'Whoever is able to stay underwater for the longest time is probably going to win the race,' " Phelps said.

As for the man in third place? Don't be disappointed in Margalis.

"I tell my son this all the time," Bob Margalis said. "I don't know how many parents can say it, but I've never been disappointed in Robert. Not once."

Not this time, either.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.

In 400 IM, Margalis watches historic feet 06/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 5:00pm]
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