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It was 20 years ago, when she was 4, that Summer Sanders decided that if her older brother could swim on a team, so could she.

"My mom said if I could swim one lap, I could do it," said Miss Sanders, an Olympic medal winner who is in Buffalo this week to promote scholarships for female athletes.

A lot has happened since she took that splash into the pool.

She was the most decorated swimmer (two gold, two silver and one bronze medal) at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. Before that she led her Stanford University team to a national championship and won back-to-back NCAA Swimmer of the Year awards.

Now, she's touring the country -- Buffalo is the first stop on a four-city tour -- to tell junior and senior high school girls that they can, and should, do the same.

Get off the sidelines. Get active. Compete.

"Just take the first step," says the trim, attractive athlete, who lives in San Francisco.

Her message is that sports provides benefits that go far beyond the pool, the court, the field.

"You create friends and they may end up being your best friends," she said.

"You learn about setting goals, about dealing with failure, about dealing with success, which is sometimes
more difficult. It gives you confidence. You learn to work as a team. These are all lifelong learning."

She thinks the message about getting into sports might have to be pitched to girls even younger, at the elementary school.

"That's when they go out and play and play and play," she said. "By junior high, I know they start thinking about what's cool and what's not. You can see that they are unsure. It's a crucial time. I don't know if they still worry about not wanting to get their hair messed up or that getting sweaty isn't attractive."

Since she was born in 1972, the year that Title 9 went into effect, she said she can't compare her experience against female athletes a generation or two ago.

The statistics are these: since 1971 the number of women participating in high school sports has increased from 300,000 to about 2.3 million.

Still, it takes effort, she emphasizes -- practicing the sport as well as participating in other activities -- to win athletic scholarships.

"It's not always the person with the 4.0 that gets chosen," she said. "But if you play the violin and you were active on student council that can make the difference."

Besides exercise and involvement, Summer Sanders talks to girls about eating a healthy, balanced diet, especially protein while they are in training.

"I think young women are starting to understand the difference between being Twiggy skinny and being healthy," she said.

Still, she won't resist the requisite stop for Buffalo chicken wings while she's in town, as well as making her first trip to see Niagara Falls.

Though she isn't competing -- or even swimming much since she moved to San Francisco two months ago -- Miss Sanders said she works out about an hour a day and does some running.

Since the 1992 games, she has done "lots of odds and ends," including working for UNICEF, Speedo, and doing the NBC swimming commentary for the Atlanta summer Olympics. She adds that she became engaged to Olympic swimmer Mark Henderson during the closing ceremonies.

Her appearance in Buffalo is as spokesperson for Target stores and Ocean Spray, which sponsor athletic awards.

Today she is scheduled to speak to students at Niagara Catholic Junior and Senior High School and the LaSalle High School swim team. From 4 to 5 p.m. she will appear at the Niagara Falls Target store to sign autographs and to encourage young women to apply for athletic scholarships. Applications will be available at the Guest Service Center at Target stores beginning in late October. Information about Ocean Spray's "Crave to be Your Best" scholarships can be obtained by calling 1-800-662-3263.

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