TAMPA - Bob Margalis vividly remembers when his son, Robert, made a complete and total commitment to swimming. It's so clear in Bob's mind because Robert was only 10, yet so convincing about focusing his life on the sport.
"When a kid looks you in the face and tells you, 'Swimming is my life, Dad,' and they have that look in their eye, you can actually believe it," Bob Margalis said. "I just stood there and said to myself, 'Wow, that is some statement for a 10-year-old.' But I knew right then his whole life was about participating in the sport of swimming."
Sixteen years later, Robert Margalis' life still revolves around swimming. Yes, the Clearwater native has completed his career at the University of Georgia, where he won 11 All-America honors and an NCAA national championship. And he's even married now, to former UGA swimmer Beth Grams.
But apart from those milestones, Margalis has remained true to the commitment he made as a 10-year-old. Despite the heartbreak of the 2000 Olympic swim trials, where he finished third in two events - one spot away from making the Sydney Games - and a rather unremarkable showing in the 2004 trials, Margalis is back to take another crack at reaching the Olympics.
As this year's Olympic trials begin Sunday in Omaha, Neb., the ever-versatile Margalis has qualified in eight of the 13 men's events. That total is surpassed only by six-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who is entered in nine events for the trials. Both swimmers probably will not compete in all those races and in Margalis' case, the 400- and 200-meter individual medley races and the 1,500 freestyle are his best shots at making the team.
Problem is, Phelps is entered in both individual medleys, where he is the world record holder in each, and so is former University of Florida star Ryan Lochte, who at this year's short course world championships set three world records. Margalis will likely face both of those swimmers in the 200 IM. And in the 1,500, Margalis will go up against U.S. record holder Larsen Jensen and two-time Olympian Erik Vendt.
Margalis says his focus is on the IM races. The 400 IM comes Sunday, the opening day of the trials. With Phelps a definite entrant, some say there's only one spot on the Olympic team up for grabs.
Phelps, of course, will be wearing the new Speedo LZR Racer, while Margalis will be sporting one made by TYR, his sponsor, which claims its new Tracer Rise suit matches Speedo's LZR technology.
"If he Phelps is on, that's pretty much true, there's one place to be had, no matter what suit he's wearing," said Margalis, who lives and trains in Athens, Ga. "I just want to get in there and race and if I were to not make the team but I went my best time and knew I put everything into it, I'd still be happy with it.
"At this point in my career, I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things and I just want to keep getting better and keep having fun. It's still fun when I'm getting better."
And despite the relatively late age of 26, Margalis is improving. Since graduating from Georgia in 2005, he has captured a silver medal at the Pan Pacific Championships in the 400 IM (behind Phelps), eclipsed the American record in the 1,000-yard freestyle and won three silver medals at the 2007 Pan American Games.
More recently, Margalis competed in the Santa Clara Grand Prix, where he finished second to Phelps in the 400 IM by just a half second. It was the fastest time he has ever swum without a taper and only three seconds off his lifetime best. Margalis' coach at the Athens Bulldog Swim Club, Harvey Humphries, believes Margalis is poised to turn in his best trials performance ever.
"I think this time around, going into these trials, he seems more relaxed, more confident, and any type of pressure he's feeling is excitement and anticipation," said Humphries, who has been working with St. Pete Aquatics coach Fred Lewis to develop Margalis' training schedules. "I'll tell you, as a coach, I can't wait to get to the trials and turn him loose. People will have to be at their best to beat Robert because he's at his best."
Margalis' mom and dad will be at the trials. So will his wife, who has hung up her swim goggles and gone to work for Raymond James. Margalis' little sister, Melanie, a junior-to-be at Countryside High, has qualified for her first trials, making it in the 200 IM and 400 free.
With two kids in the trials, Margalis' parents expect to be more nervous than ever. The memories of the final 2000 trials are still fresh in their minds, particularly the 1,500 free, where, on the last day of the meet, Robert finished third and missed making the team by one place.
"I remember him getting in the warm-down pool after that last race and as they were announcing the Olympic team, Bob and I just had to leave, it was just too emotional at that point," said his mother, Caryn Margalis. "That was one of the most difficult points of his career but he's never given up. He just keeps getting back in the pool no matter what happens."
Olympics or not, Margalis has no plans to stop swimming after these trials. First or last place, he'll be swimming after it's over.
"I can't comprehend not swimming," Margalis said. "I have no idea what I would do. I like it too much to stop in the foreseeable future."
WHAT: U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials
WHEN: Sunday-July 6
WHERE: The Qwest Center, Omaha, Neb.
AT STAKE: Top two in each event qualify for the Beijing Olympics if they have met the Olympic "A" standard. Other athletes, including those who reach the finals of the 100-meter freestyle who finish out of the top two, are eligible for Olympic relay teams.
TV: Sunday - 8-9 p.m. (WFLA, Channel.8); Monday-Thursday - 8-9 p.m. (USA); Friday-July 6 - 8-9 p.m. (WFLA, Channel.8)
J.P. Arnold, Brandon/Georgia (400 free, 1,500 free)
Katie Coleman, Palm Harbor University (200 fly)
Kelley Hug, Academy of the Holy Names/Stanford (100 fly, 100 back)
Kaitlin Frehling, Seminole (50 free)
Melanie Margalis, Countryside (200 IM, 400 free)
Robert Margalis, Clearwater/Georgia (200 free, 400 IM, 200 fly, 200 back, 200 breast, 400 IM, 400 free, 1,500)
Chelsea Nauta, Tampa Prep/Georgia (200 free, 400 free, 100 free, 800 free, 200 back)
Megan Romano, Northeast (100 back, 200 back, 50 free, 100 free, 200 free, 400 free)
Mitch Snyder, Northeast (1,500 free)
Jason Taylor, Newsome (1,500 free)
Tommy Wyher, Jesuit/North Carolina (100 back, 100 fly)