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AT 14, FUTURE FOCUS

Becca Mann isn't Olympics-bound yet but it's a matter of time.

With every stroke, you can see her future. With every kick, you can imagine her growth.

Eventually, and it won't be long, the little girl in Lane 8 is going to grow into a very big deal.

Eventually, you will know her by the headlines she creates, by the photos on the covers of magazines, by the stopwatches she breaks. You will recognize her by the medals on her neck, by the moments she creates, by the opponents she leaves in her wake.

Eventually, Becca Mann is going to own this sport of swimming.

Who knows? Maybe she'll lay a claim to the rest of the world, too.

For now, it is impressive enough to watch a 14-year-old girl prove that the swimming pool is not over her head, not even if the pool is at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. In a way, this is Mann's first big splash, her first real warning to the nation to watch over their shoulders. She is coming.

She is 14, for crying out loud. She is barely a teenager. If Nickelodeon had a swim team, she would be on it. For most 14-year-olds, the world is an awkward, confusing place where you are too young to drive, too young to date and barely old enough to dream. To put in aquatic terms, she is a tadpole. After all, at 14, most girls are still swimming for ribbons.

And yet, over the last two nights, Clearwater's Mann has made an entire sport take notice. Tuesday night, she was sixth in the 400-meter freestyle, one night after she was fifth in the 400-meter individual medley. No, it hasn't been good enough to qualify for this year's Olympics. Still, it has been good enough to make you wonder how she will spend the next two or three.

Just wondering, but how did the 14-year-old at your house spend the last couple of nights?

Oh.

Tuesday night, amid the fireworks and flashing lights and intense pressure, Mann looked strong, and she looked smooth. She did not look quite ready, however. She swam in 4 minutes, 8.65 seconds, a little more than six seconds behind winner Allison Schmitt.

How fast is 4:08.65? In 1996, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith won the Olympic gold medal in the 400 free with a 4:07.25, and it took steroids to get it done.

That was two years before Mann was born.

Brooke Bennett, as you may remember, was also impossibly young when she won her first gold in 1996. She was 16. Janet Evans? She was 17 when she won the gold in '88. In other words, Mann has a head start. Watch her go.

Some athletes sneak up on success. They are pretty good, and then they fade, and they kick-start their career, and when they become a champion, it surprises you. Not Mann. Every event is like a preview of things to come. You can only imagine how good she might be by the Olympics of 2016 or 2020.

Squint, and you can see dozens of writers bringing up the old story about how she completed the Maui Crossing - a 9-1/2 mile swim that took six hours, 26 minutes and 46 seconds to complete - at age 10. She is still the youngest competitor to complete the swim. ... Maybe because of the sharks. Why did she try? Because she was irked she wasn't allowed to swim in the relay event four days earlier.

Imagine, and you can see Olympic officials cuing up the National Anthem for her, again and again. After all, Mann once predicted that she expected to break Michael Phelps' record of eight gold medals in a single Olympics.

"Eight in the pool and one in the open water," she said.

Bow your head, and eventually, you can see Mann in a habit. She has said she wants to be a nun. That, too, says something about her determination. Suggested headline when it happens: From pool water to Holy Water.

First, Mann will compete in the 800. It's a long swim. On the other hand, it's closer than Maui. Still, at her age, the trials aren't just about the results. It's about the lessons.

"It was amazing," Mann said of her swims. "It's such a great experience. It's so much fun."

And that's the thing. As much as any sport, improvement in swimming is measured in fractions of seconds. At 14, the most important thing is to get in the pool and chase tomorrow.

Mann is gaining on it.

Just watch her go.

- gshelton@tampabay.com

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