Romano rebounds from mono, eyes title

As an elite swimmer, Megan Romano has grown accustomed to living an unconventional lifestyle. But even by her standards, the past few months have been far from typical.

While her classmates at Northeast prepared for final exams last spring, Romano was preoccupied prepping for an event that in many ways represented the culmination of more than 10 years of competitive swimming -- the U.S. Olympic Trials.

But just weeks before the meet kicked off in Omaha, Neb., at the end of June, as Romano was tuning up for the Trials at a meet in North Carolina, something unusual happened: She couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed.

After two bed-bound days, Romano managed to get herself on a plane and return home to Tampa. She immediately went to the hospital for tests and held out hope she was simply suffering from strep throat or the flu. But it didn't look good.

"Her neck was the same size as her head," says
Rhonda Romano, Megan's mother. "That's how big the lymph nodes had swollen."

A blood test revealed Romano had mononucleosis. All of a sudden, her availability for the Trials was in serious doubt.

"I was like, 'Great, perfect timing,'" Romano says.

Normally, her timing is impeccable. Romano has dominated youth swimming events in Florida since she was a kid, like the time she broke 17 pool, division and state records at a Junior Olympics meet in Gainesville when she was 13.

Since entering high school, the 6-foot-2 senior has never been defeated in an individual event. That includes the Class 2A state meet, where Romano won the 100 and 200 freestyle as a sophomore and the 200 free and 100 backstroke as a junior. She has also been a member of two state champion relay teams and twice been named Class 2A Swimmer of the Year by the Florida Dairy Farmers.

"She's done just about anything that's possible to do at the high school level," Northeast coach Bill Burrows says.

Romano had posted qualifying times in six different events heading into the Trials, but it all seemed for naught. She was a dark horse to secure a spot on the Olympic Team to begin with, and a mono-stricken 17-year-old making the squad was pretty much out of the question.

Romano's Favs

TV Show: Anything on the National Geographic Channel
Movie: "Step Brothers"
Actresses: Angelina Jolie and Paris Hilton
Musical Artist: T.I.

Romano tried to persevere, but personal coach Fred Lewis limited her training, not wanting to risk her health. Instead of her typical daily regimen of three or four hours of swimming and dry-land training, Romano worked out for maybe 45 minutes per day.

Sick and suddenly out of shape -- a couple weeks is all it takes for elite swimmers -- Romano nearly pulled out of the Trials. But she had worked hard to earn her spot and was determined to swim, even if her expectations were lowered significantly.

"I hadn't been to Trials before," Romano says. "I was just looking forward to being there. It was definitely the biggest, most exciting meet I've ever been to -- the fastest meet I've ever been to, for sure."

Romano participated in three of her possible six events and competed admirably. She finished in the top half of the field in the 100 free, 200 free and 200 back and somehow managed to shave a few hundredths of a second off her personal-best time in the 100 free. But at a meet like the Olympic Trials, even the race of her life may not have been enough.

"You just see your child train morning and night and morning and night for years and years -- and then they have mono," Rhonda Romano says. "I just felt so bad for her."

But Megan, while disappointed, was pragmatic about the situation. That she was able to compete at all considering her health was a minor miracle. And her effort in the 100 free opened a door to a major opportunity.

Based on her performance at the Trials, Romano was one of about two dozen girls chosen to represent USA Swimming at July's FINA Junior Swimming Championships in Mexico. There, Romano again bettered her time in the 100 free to earn a bronze medal. She also helped the U.S. win gold and set a new meet record in the 400 free relay.

It wasn't the first time Romano had represented the United States in international competition. But coming on the heels of her bout with mono, it was an impressive accomplishment.

Shortly after returning home from Mexico, and just as she was starting to feel fully recovered, Romano had to have her wisdom teeth removed. A common inconvenience, no doubt, but it meant another full week out of the pool -- practically an eternity for a swimmer of her caliber.

"It was a bizarre summer for the kid," Rhonda Romano says with a laugh.
With her wisdom teeth removed and the bout with mono in the rearview mirror, Romano has returned to the water with a new sense of purpose. As a junior, she set the state record in the 100 back (54.41) -- only to see it broken by Lake Brantley's Sarah Bateman at the Class 3A meet the next day. In addition to reclaiming that record, Romano has her sights set on breaking a national prep record in the back or the free.

"I like to set goals just to keep myself on track," she says. "I've been thinking about this for a while. Getting the national record in either of those would be my goal."

Once the season is over, if not sooner, Romano will choose her college. At press time, Arizona, Florida and Georgia were the leading suitors. And qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London remains a goal as well.

"I think she has a real good chance of being there the next time," Burrows says. "I don't think she's lost the fire at all."

Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.