By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Growing up, Melanie Margalis was always known as “Robert’s little sister” or “Stephanie’s little sister.” It’s often what happens when you’re the youngest.
As a result, living up to expectations created by former National Teamer Robert’s standout career also cast a shadow on Melanie as she rose through the swimming ranks. And it didn’t help that she swims most of the same events as her accomplished older brother.
But these days – now a junior All-American for the University of Georgia, also Robert’s alma mater – Melanie is swimming into her own.
She’s made a name for herself among the college ranks, and now, based upon her strong swim last summer at the U.S. Open (second in the 200 individual medley), she’s ready to create her own path as a member of this year’s World University Games team.
It’s all part of her quest to differentiate herself in and out of the pool – and she’s well on her way.
“In many ways, they (Robert and Stephanie) have helped me become the person that I am today, and I’m very grateful for their support and influence,” Margalis said. “As far as swimming goes, I don’t think I could have asked for a better role model than Robert. He taught me so much about not giving up despite adversity.
“He missed making the (2000 and 2004) Olympic teams by a couple of seconds, and rather than let that discourage him, he was right back in the pool and worked harder than ever. I try to emulate that in my life as well.”
Considering her strong disdain for the sport when she first started swimming as a 5-year-old, the success that Margalis has accomplished in a relatively short amount of time has been fantastic.
She didn’t start swimming seriously (or regularly) until she turned 10, and in many ways, she thinks having a later beginning in competitive swimming has been a positive for her career in that she hasn’t gotten burned out by the sport and still has a very fresh outlook and attitude.
“I love practicing more than I ever have, and I think if I had started swimming seriously and competitively younger than I did, I wouldn’t be as excited to go to the pool every day,” said Margalis, who hails from Clearwater, Fla., where she was a three-time state champion and state record-holder in the 200 IM.
“I remember coming home from swimming my first day and telling my mom that I had to quit swimming because it was too hard to go to school (kindergarten) and swim practice. I would go to practice, but I’d hang out in the sand pit and not swim. It wasn’t until a friend of mine convinced me to get in the water that I realized I actually liked swimming.”
With NCAAs less than three weeks away in Indianapolis at the IU Natatorium, Margalis will be among a large group of contenders in the IM events – which she describes as a “deep” field of competitors.
The fashion merchandising major – who draws inspiration and motivation from her teammates, Allison Schmitt and Megan Romano, in particular, as well as her family – has made some adjustments to her race strategy that she hopes continues to pay dividends.
She attributes the changes – which involve focusing more on increasing speed in the backstroke leg leading into her breaststroke, which is her strongest and most reliable – to being the reason she ended a two-year streak of finishing second to win the 200 IM at last week’s Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championships. It is her first individual conference title.
“I didn’t want to keep getting second, so I worked really hard to make the necessary changes to improve my overall race,” said Margalis, who set a new SEC record in winning the event. “It’s amazing to think that something so small as working on race strategy could make such a difference, but it has. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of difference it makes against everyone at NCAAs.”
Beyond NCAAs, Margalis said she is looking ahead to preparing for World University Games and will skip summer classes this year to focus on her training. She said she’s not sure yet if she will swim any Arena Grand Prix events leading up to WUGs, but she is planning to compete in June – back in Indianapolis – at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships and World Championship Trials.
While there’s an outside chance she could qualify to compete at Worlds, she said she knows the IM events are very deep in the United States and is choosing to concentrate on WUGs, where she will be teammates with fellow Bulldog and close friend Romano.
She’s also excited about redeeming herself after disqualifying in the 200 IM – her best chance to make the Olympic team – at Olympic Trials. She was DQ’d for her back-to-breast turn when she didn’t legally touch the wall after finishing sixth and originally qualifying for the semifinals.
“I’m really excited (former Georgia assistant and current Texas head coach) Carol (Capitani) is going to be an assistant on the World University Games team; I’m really looking forward to working with her again,” Margalis said. “I’m also excited to overcome my fear of being disqualified again. It’s always on my mind during long course meets, and I think I let that affect my focus and timing coming into the wall.
“I’ve been working on this, and I want to swim my event without having to worry whether or not I hit the wall correctly. But I’m feeling very confident heading into NCAAs and the summer, and I’m expecting some great swims in (Kazan) Russia. I’m sure it will be a summer to remember.”