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Ex-Tornado to continue quest to reach Athens

Robert Margalis has never been to Japan or Greece.

But later this month, success at one of those exotic locales might put him one step closer to earning a trip to the other.

The local swimming icon soon will head for the Far East to participate in the World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, July 22-29.

The 2004 Athens Olympics, Margalis' ultimate goal, still are far away, but he will get a good idea of how he matches up against other potential Olympians during his first trip to the prestigious meet.

"There are a lot of steppingstones along the way to the Olympics, and this is another goal toward the goal," Margalis said.

The Clearwater resident will participate in four events at the worlds _ the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley _ thanks to an outstanding performance in March at the Senior National Championships in Austin, Texas.

At that meet, the 19-year-old won the 400 free, placed second in the 1,500 free and 200 IM and reached the final in two other events to earn the Kiphuth Award, given to the individual who scores the most points.

Last weekend in California, Margalis shined at the Mission Viejo Swim Meet of Champions, again winning the overall points award _ and a laptop computer.

"His training has been at a higher level than it's ever been in the past," said Fred Lewis, his longtime coach at St. Petersburg's North Shore Pool. "The intensity and amount has been increasing gradually and will be over the next four years."

Lately, the work has been paying off.

To qualify for the world championships, Margalis had to finish in the top two at the Senior Nationals, which he did in three events. Placing in the 1,500 free allowed him the option to compete in the 800 at the worlds, which he will exercise.

The way he sees it, the more events, the better.

"I wouldn't be quite as happy if I just got to go out there and swim one event," Margalis said. "I like to participate rather than spectate."

Margalis' inner fire remains intense even after a heartbreaking near-miss last summer at the Olympic trials. Top-two finishes earned berths to Sydney, Australia, and Margalis finished third in the 400 and 1,500 free.

"I'm reminded of it every once in a while, but I don't dwell on it," Margalis said. "I focus on my goals and what I'm trying to do now."

Today, that involves nine practice sessions a week at North Shore _ morning workouts at 6:45 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and afternoon practices Monday through Saturday.

Frequently, he practices alone. Margalis, a state champion at Clearwater High and St. Petersburg Aquatics who will be a leader on the University of Georgia team next spring, has run out of peers.

But, Lewis said, Margalis needs none. The coach gives him a time to shoot for, and the swimmer hits it.

"He knows that's what it takes to be at the level he wants to be at," Lewis said.

Later this month in Japan, Margalis will find out how his level matches up against the Australians and other international powers and try to build more confidence on the road to Athens.

"It's kind of hard going into a meet that I've never been to before. So you definitely have to set goals going in," Margalis said.

"I'm looking forward to trying to bring home a couple of medals."

COMING WEDNESDAY:

Maritza Correia, formerly of Tampa Bay Tech and now swimming at the University of Georgia, is also making the journey to Fukuoka, Japan, next week to compete in the World Swimming Championships.

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