Coaches and scribes were trying to flatter 15-year-old phenom Megan Quann at the U.S. Open swim meet in San Antonio last weekend, but the skeptical Quann wanted no part of it. Their mistake, it seemed, was in the focus of their accolades: Megan Quann.
What about Quann's resounding victory last Thursday night in the 100-meter breaststroke against South Africa's Penny Heyns, who had shattered 11 world records over three distances this year? Big wup. "She wasn't in my lane," Quann said. "Why should I worry about her?" How about Quann's time of 1:07.94—the sixth U.S. record of her career? Been there, done that. National records are, like, so 20th-century. "I wanted the world record," said Quann, who still has 1.42 seconds to go to beat the mark Heyns set in Sydney in August. "Maybe next year. I know I can get it sooner or later."
Quann may not have been impressed, but Heyns sure was. "It's the first time I've lost a race to someone 10 years younger," Heyns said. "It's pretty scary." As Heyns was struggling with Meganitis, Quann placed second in Saturday's 200 breaststroke to former world-record holder Rebecca Brown of Australia but reduced her PR to 2:32.36.
Quann gave little indication of her talents the day she joined the Aquatic Club in Puyallup, Wash., as a nine-year-old. "I stopped seven times in one lap of a 25-yard pool," she recalls. "They put me with the five-year-olds, and I was soooo embarrassed. I had to be with the older kids."
Rick Benner, the club's coach, charged a graduated monthly rate based on which of eight skill levels a kid had reached. Erin and Tom Quann couldn't understand why their fees climbed every month. "Just how good is she getting?" Tom asked Benner at a meet one day. "Watch this next race," Benner said. Megan, then 10, beat the field in the 200-yard breaststroke by a pool length.
Within two years Megan was nagging Benner for twice-daily practice sessions. "It isn't something you do when you're 12," Benner told her. "O.K., then, when?" she asked. He worked her into two-a-days over the next few months. When Benner tried to send her home after she arrived at the pool pale and queasy one day, Megan protested vehemently, then swam for an hour, fell asleep at poolside and threw up in the car on the way home.
Tom learned not to try to temper his daughter's expectations. Megan had never swum better than 1:13 for the 100-meter breaststroke going into the 1998 spring nationals when Tom asked her what her target time for the meet was. When she told him 1:09, he suggested that she "should try for something a little more realistic." Megan, who was seeded 20th, won her first national title, swimming the final in 1:09.42.
Now Quann's days include three training sessions, two of swimming and one of weight training or kicking drills. She swims 100,000 yards a week and has a 3.95 average at Puyallup's Rogers High, where her sophomore courses include college-level biology and sign language. "Megan's headed for the pool at five in the morning," says her father, "so there's no need for a curfew."
What's more, she has a mantra some parents might wish to bottle for their teenage girls: "Boys are bad." This isn't parental overprotection talking; Quann has a self-imposed moratorium on dating until after the Sydney Olympics. That leaves her more time for must-see TV: videotapes of her training sessions. While classmates are watching reruns of Friends, she's taxing the pause and rewind buttons on the VCR as she squints to find flaws in her flip turns. Then she makes a list: good things on one side, bad things on the other, and usually borrows space at the bottom side of the GOOD column after the BAD column fills up with "yucks" and "ughs." "Kick wider," she might write. "Lunge forward, not up."
All this hasn't gotten her where she wants to be. In San Antonio, where her 100 was voted the Open's top performance, Quann was still fending off praise and eyeing future feats. "I know the world record is within reach—soon," she said. But for someone who shows little reverence for paying dues, Quann knew she would have to put in time to reach one goal. Not long ago she acquired an unseemly nickname, one that makes her eyes roll. On friends' advice, she once soaked a new swimsuit in vinegar so the colors wouldn't run. When she arrived at practice the next day, the suit's stench preceded her and brought her a moniker she may need years to shed. Quann will know she has arrived the day people stop calling her Pickles. Then she'll be really impressed.