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Margalis, 16, heads straight to victory

As he raced across the line first in the Tampa Bay Open Water Challenge, a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) swim from Gandy Beach in St. Petersburg to Picnic Island in Tampa, Robert Margalis looked behind him and found no one there. Upon this discovery, Margalis felt at ease, realizing for the first time that in an open water swim, he was the one losing people.

In the inaugural event a year ago, Margalis, a member of the Clearwater Aquatics Team, was among the leaders.

That is, until he got lost.

Margalis and fellow CAT swimmer John Margaritondo were in front early and finished among the top 10. But a strong current carried them off course. They ran down the beach trying to make up time, but they lost a chance for victory. Margalis finished fifth.

Margalis wanted redemption, so he decided to swim again. By finishing with a time of 56 minutes, 17 seconds Saturday, Margalis salvaged last year's awkward moments.

"It was a learning experience last year," Margalis said. "I wanted to get out in front early this time and I made sure I stayed close to the buoys so I didn't go off course. I was ahead the whole way and never really had anyone around me. Swimming out here is easier, I think. In the pool, more people are evened and it's more of a race."

A 16-year-old sophomore at Clearwater High, Margalis is competing with the 18-and-under Junior National Team and is preparing for the Grand Prix in two weeks in England. He took time off from training to compete Saturday.

"I would've been in the pool anyway," Margalis said. "So this is kind of my Saturday practice."

Margalis, indeed, made it look like practice when he took an early lead and never gave it up. But he did receive some competition through the first part of the race.

Briley Bergen, a 14-year-old who swims for Brandon Swim and Tennis Club, trailed slightly until Margalis distanced himself on the last four buoys.

"I thought my best chance was to stay with Robert," said Bergen, an eighth-grader at Mann Middle School. "But he took off on the last four buoys so I was like, "Okay, see ya.' But I was pleased with how I did. The water was calm and it was a great day. Usually, the longer the event is, the better I do."

Bergen is no stranger to distance events. She was the 1997 U.S. Swimming National Champion for the 15K open water distance and the runner-up in the 25K. She finished Saturday's race with a time of 56.52, good enough for second.