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THE WATER delivered her. Always had, from darn near birth. Marin Morrison would get into the pool, and everything would just make sense. She'd move her arms and legs, and she'd be off, cutting through the water like a speedboat. Marin's parents, Matt and Nancy, chose her name mostly because Matt was raised in Marin County, Calif. But the symbolism wasn't lost on others: Marin, from the Latin "of the sea."
Marin had the good fortune to grow up in Florida, where she could swim year-round. As the other kids in the pool perfected their cannonballs or played Marco Polo, she swam from one end to the other and back. At age six she joined a swim league. When it came time to race, she'd dive in, rocket down her lane, turn around and wait patiently to see who came in second.
Marin had a learning disability, which sometimes made school a struggle for her. But it also imbued her with a capacity for work. She'd spend an hour reading a few pages of a book if that's what it took to understand them. She brought that same sensibility to the pool, practicing and practicing, indifferent to the passage of time.
By the time Marin was in fifth grade, Matt had taken a job as an anchor for Fox Sports Net, and the family had moved to Atlanta. Training with the Swim Atlanta team, Marin was on her way to becoming a top national racer in the 100-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke. Once, in the fall of 2003, Swim Atlanta coach Chris Davis asked Marin, then 13, to race for 25 yards underwater against Amanda Weir, a 17-year-old hotshot. Deploying her superior dolphin kick, Marin won by more than a body length. Less than a year later, Weir would win two silver medals at the Athens Olympics.
"Marin had all the tools," says Davis. "Speed. Desire. Coachability. And she could kick [like] Natalie Coughlin. We're pretty much talking unlimited potential."
Marin's bedroom doubled as a repository for trophies and ribbons. She was in eighth grade when the college recruiting letters started filling the family mailbox. With her textbook streamlines and uncommonly smooth technique, says Davis, "there's no doubt in my mind she would have been at the 2008 Olympic Trials."
For all her success, though, Marin never developed a true passion for competition. It drove her dad nuts. "I'd say, 'I can't tell if you won or lost—how come you don't have more fire?'" says Matt, who played baseball at UCLA. "Marin would shrug. If she did well by her own standards, that was enough."
Friendly but reserved—sometimes she lamented that she wasn't part of the popular crowd—Marin walked the halls of Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga., giving no hint that she was one of the best athletes in the school. As a freshman, in 2005, she clocked school-record times of 52.86 in the 100-yard free and 1:01.45 in the 100 back, and she was a favorite to win the Georgia state Class AAAAA championship in the 100 freestyle. With a few weeks left in the season, though, she complained of searing headaches. At the state meet she finished third in the 100 free and 12th in the 100 back, and at a Swim Atlanta event afterward she vomited on the pool deck. Another time she said she had double vision. She felt sick even after entering the water.
She was disappointed by her performance in the state meet but not crushed. She'd done her best, especially considering that she was sick. She figured that she'd rest, swim over the summer and then win everything as a sophomore.
The water delivered him. Always had, from darn near birth. Nick Scandone was a conventional Southern California kid. Growing up in comfort in Orange County in the '70s and '80s, he liked beaches, bikes and baseball. Given his slight physical build, any ambitions of being an athlete perished early. But they were revived when, at age nine, he ventured into the Balboa Yacht Club in Corona Del Mar. His mom, an assertive travel-agency owner, presented him with a choice in the months before fourth grade: "Summer school or sailing school." The decision was easy. At Balboa he met Mike Pinckney, an older instructor Nick wanted to emulate. And he discovered the joys of climbing into an eight-foot Sabot dinghy and slicing through the water.