She was supposed to be too young. All along, that was the biggest obstacle Megan Romano had to swim around.
And yet, there are days she feels so old.
At 17, life is not supposed to be like this. Not for an elite athlete, anyway. Yet there are times when it feels as if a recent bout with mononucleosis has drained the energy from Romano's body. Her weight is down, her stamina has gone, and the timing of her illness could not be worse.
Is this any way for a swimmer to enter her first Olympic trials?
This could have been Romano's first big splash, remember? Oh, even if she were healthy, the odds are against a 17-year-old sprinter swimming her way into the Olympics. Still, given the way Romano has dominated the pool most of her life, would it have been a shock to see her make the Olympic team? As Megan's father, Tom Romano, says, someone is going to.
Of course, that was before her doctor said a four-letter word: mono.
Just like that, the water got deeper and the odds got longer for Romano. Just like that, it got even tougher to swim all the way to China.
"I definitely feel better than a few weeks ago, even a week ago," she says. "But there are days when it takes its toll. Some days are better than others.
"It just leaves you tired and weak. It's like every other day. One day I'll be fine, and the next day it'll be back. It's not a good time, but what are you going to do?"
Romano sits in her family's dining room and shrugs. If she is frustrated by this latest wave of rotten luck — her first car was stolen a few months ago — she does not let it show. When things go badly, a swimmer's only choice is to keep stroking.
In front of her, the room is wallpapered with recruiting letters from colleges. Stanford and Texas and Arizona and Hawaii and Harvard and UCLA and USC and every other school that has a swimming pool. Assorted medals accent the room.
The adjoining room, the computer room, has more of the same. Dozens of articles are pinned to a bulletin board, and there are photos and ribbons and scrapbooks. On one wall, several of her red, white and blue ribbons have been arranged into the shape of an American flag. Megan did that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In other words, this is the home of a swimmer. And more than any other, the Olympics are the time of the swimmer. So if you want to know the truth of it, yeah, the timing is rotten.
"We talked, and we guessed it would take a miracle," says Fred Lewis, her coach. "But nobody picked the New York Giants (to win the Super Bowl), either. I'd give her about as much chance as they had."
Says Rhonda Romano, Megan's mother: "Sometimes I could cry when I think about how hard this kid has worked for years."
As for Megan, the most you will get are fleeting admissions of disappointment.
"These are my first trials," she says. "I was always looking at this as an experience. But I also wanted to do well and make the team. Was I expecting to get first or second? No. But maybe the top six (the top six in the 100- and 200-meter freestyles make the team).
"I had my personal best (in the 200) in North Carolina (three weeks ago), and I felt I could go faster. And then I just died because of the mono."
Looking back, Romano figures she had the disease for three weeks by then. She had missed several days of school and several workouts in mid May. Her fever went down, but the lumps on her neck did not go away. After the meet in Charlotte, Romano felt so bad that her father took her to the hospital upon her return. He suspected strep throat. Instead, it was mono.
The mono took its toll on Romano's workouts. Instead of being in a pool for hours a day, she has spent 45 minutes, maybe an hour. She has done less cardio work on the StairMaster.
"I think (making the Olympic team) is still a possibility," Romano says. "With the amount of training I've had the last few weeks, I don't know. But I want to give it a try."
Romano hasn't decided how many events she'll swim in the trials, which begin today in Omaha, Neb. She could compete in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles and 100 and 200 backstroke. Of those, the 100 and 200 free are her best events.
Even healthy, it is rare for a 17-year-old swimmer to make a mark in the sprints. For instance, Amy Van Dyken, the last American to win gold in one, was 23 when she did so in 1996. Australia's Libby Trickett has world records in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and she set both at 23.
For Romano, it always has seemed as if the 2012 Olympics in London, when she will be 21, would be a better bet. Maybe the Olympics after that.
Still, what 17-year-old wants to wait?
Romano is a typical teenager, her parents will tell you. She is funny and bright and headstrong, and she is prone to leap from hidden places to frighten the dickens out of her buddies. A few months ago, in her room, she pierced the left side of her nose. She covered it up with a bandage for two days, telling her parents it was a scratch.
"Does that tell you what kind of kid she is?" Tom Romano says, laughing loudly.
Yeah, it gives you some clues. It suggests that Megan is prone to surprise some people. It says that she can stand a little discomfort. It says that, eventually, she's destined to flash a little gold.
Mono or not, she's worth watching in Omaha.