It was close to midnight Sunday, and Megan Quann couldn't sleep. Could you blame her? She had waited four years to compete in the Olympics. Her big moment was less than 24 hours away.
So she did what she had done countless times before a big race. She reached onto her nightstand, grabbed a stopwatch and shut her eyes.
Instantly, Quann was transported to poolside. She visualized herself, jumping up and down, preparing herself for the 100-meter breaststroke final. She heard the announcer, calling her name. She saw herself move to the starting blocks. She heard the starting horn and clicked on the stopwatch.
"When I visualize a race, I take it stroke by stroke," she said. "Into the wall, off the turn. I can see the tiles on the bottom of the pool. I can hear everyone cheering in the crowd. I can taste the water as I go stroke for stroke into the wall, and when I touch the wall I turn around and see my time."
She lifted her head off the pillow and looked at the stopwatch. It read 1:05.45. A world record in the 100 breaststroke. She swam the race over and over again in her head and every time she set a world record. That's how this 16-year-old thinks. Confident. Determined. A world record every time.
A couple of years ago, Quann attached a list of names to the door in her bedroom in Puyallup, Wash. On it was the name of every active female swimmer with a better time in her specialty, the 100-meter breaststroke. By this past May, when Quann qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, there was only one name left. It was Penny Heyns, the South African who had won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta.
Heyns, at 25 the grand old gal of the breaststroke, held the world record of 1:06.52. Quann is a great admirer of hers. That didn't stop her from issuing a bold pronouncement after winning the Olympic Trials: "She's going down."
On Monday night in the International Aquatic Centre, she made good on her prediction. After trailing by half a second at the halfway mark, Quann surged ahead to win the gold medal. Leisel Jones, the Australian 15-year-old, won the silver, Heyns the bronze. Quann's winning time -- 1:07.05 -- was short of the world record. But she wasn't complaining.
"I'm on top of the world right now," she said. "I won the gold medal! I'm very happy with the swim. It wasn't quite the world record, but I'll get out there and do it next time."
Amazing, isn't it, how quickly things can change in the pool? Two nights earlier, the host Australians were on top of the world. Ian Thorpe won the 400 free and helped give the U.S. men their first loss ever in the 4x100 freestyle relay. For two days, the Aussie media shilled shamelessly for the host country. It was worse than any of the drivel that came out of Atlanta in '96. The Aussies puffed out their chests; they had visions of winning the overall medal count at the Games. One headline loudly declared, "It's Our Pool!"
"I think that first night, after the 400 freestyle relay, it really inspired everyone on our team to work harder and push past those tough times," Quann said.
The Americans responded by going 1-2 in two events on Sunday, as Brooke Bennett won the women's 400 freestyle and Tom Dolan the 400 medley. It continued Monday with Lenny Krayzelburg winning the men's 100 backstroke and Quann the women's 100 breaststroke.
By the time the Americans swam their races, Thorpe had already been upset by Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200-meter freestyle. For two days, the 17-year-old Thorpe had achieved superhero status in his home country. When it became evident that he wouldn't catch the Dutchman in the 200 free, a unbelieving hush fell over the aquatic center.
It was the Aussies' pool no longer. The pool belonged to Quann. When Quann sees the tiles and tastes the water, she is always at home. She had been preparing for this moment since '96, when she saw 14-year-old Amanda Beard win three medals at the Atlanta Olympics.
"Seeing a 14-year-old win two silver medals and a gold really inspired me to work harder in practice and push forward to reach my goals," she said.
By age 14, she had broken her first national record. She was swimming 10 miles a day, 70 miles a week. She stunned reporters at the Trials by revealing that she hadn't tapered her workouts until a few days before. She once cried after missing a workout because she was throwing up and had a 103-degree temperature.
Her mother, Erin, was a ballet dancer. Her father, Tom, played water polo in college. They made a point not to push her, but it didn't matter. She pushed herself. "We can't instill that drive and determination," her father said. "That's something Megan brought to the table."
When Quann showed up at the interview table Monday night, she was perfectly at ease. She loves the cameras. She loves to talk. The media couldn't get enough of her. Toward the end of her news conference, Thorpe was waiting for his turn. Two days earlier, reporters had fallen over one another to hear his words. Now they wanted Quann to stay.
That's what happens at an Olympics. Athletes burst onto the scene like comets. Often they're teenagers like Thorpe and Quann. But it seems there's always another one waiting to come along. At this moment, there is a 12-year-old girl out there, vowing to become the next Megan Quann.
That's fine with her. She says she still has things to accomplish, a world record to set. She's won gold, yes. But when she closes her eyes, she can still see Heyns' name on her bedroom door.