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Becca Mann Rewriting Her Own Path To The Olympic Games

By Philip Hersh | June 03, 2016, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

Becca Mann competes in the women's open water swimming 5-kilometer race at the 15th FINA World Championships at Moll de la Fusta on July 20, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.

Becca Mann found out last July she would have to make major revisions in the script that would have her swimming in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Part of that task is easy, given that no U.S. Olympic swimming hopeful could be more qualified than Mann to do such rewriting.

After all, she was a published author by age 16. Mann’s young adult fantasy novel, the 322-page “The Stolen Dragon of Quanx,” came out in October 2014. It is the first installment of her planned Eyes Trilogy.

And she has been accepted into the writing for screen and television program at the University of Southern California’s renowned School of Cinematic Arts, whose alums include Hollywood superstar writers like Melissa Rosenberg (“The Twilight Saga”), Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”) and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”).

The tough part is while Mann still has complete control over how “The Eyes Trilogy” will end, the plot line of her Olympic story became far less certain after she failed to make the U.S. team in open water swimming.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

It has left her to seek a place in pool swimming, where Mann’s credentials are very good but not as strong as her open water record.

Mann went to the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, needing a top-10 finish in the 10-kilometer open water race to get a U.S. Olympic team spot. She had finished eighth in that race at the previous worlds in 2013 and went on to win the U.S. titles at the distance in 2014 and 2015.

“I expected to make it,” Mann said. “I was a little too cocky probably.”

Teammate Haley Anderson, who had finished second to Mann in the 10k at the 2014 and 2015 nationals, earned her second Olympic open water berth by finishing ninth in Kazan. Mann wound up 14th, some 15 seconds from 10th, getting a physical and psychological battering in the process.

Elite open water swimming is a contact sport at times. Mann emerged from the Kazanka River after nearly two hours of racing with a fat lip, a black eye and a bruised ego. It left her exhausted 10 days later as she took to the pool and finished 10th in the 800-meter freestyle preliminaries with a time (8 minutes, 28.44 seconds) that left her both unhappy and out of the final by 1.48 seconds.

“I was very upset for a while after worlds,” Mann said. “Then I was like, ‘I have an opportunity to make the Olympic team in the pool, and I’m not going to waste it.’

“It wasn’t a blessing in disguise because I like open water more. But I’m training harder than ever, and I really hope I can make the pool team.”

After spending more than a month training at altitude at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she will go into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials later this month in Omaha, Nebraska, with the second fastest time by a U.S. swimmer this season in the 800 free and fourth fastest in both the 400 free and 400 individual medley.

It will take a top-two finish in one of those events to make the 2016 Olympic team. Her best finish in any pool event at a U.S. championship is third in the 800 free in 2014.

Erik Posegay, Mann’s coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, was concerned with how she would deal with the open water disappointment, the first real setback in her swimming career. What he had learned of her personality and work ethic correctly suggested she would rebound. Evidence came in the first two Arena Pro Swim Series meets of this season, where Mann would clock career-best times in the 400 and 800 freestyles and the 400 IM.

“You never know, but I like where we sit right now,” Posegay said. “She has made so many great gains and never trained any better than this year.”

Posegay decided to keep Mann out of any of this weekend’s three meets, the last significant events before the trials – in Indianapolis, Santa Clara, California, and Austin, Texas – because of her past success going directly from altitude training to competition at appreciably lower elevations. He is trying to convince Mann to limit her trials events, so she will have energy left for the 800 on the sixth and seventh days of the eight-day Omaha meet. She also has qualified for the 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle and 200 IM, all of which come before the 800 final.

“She likes to keep racing and feels she gets better the more she does,” Posegay said.  “Hopefully, I can rein that in a little.”

Mann, 18, already had covered a lot of distance in a circuitous, nomadic route before winding up in Baltimore in January 2014. Then she chose to stay put when NBAC coach Bob Bowman accepted the Arizona State coaching job in April 2015, and NBAC Olympic champions Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt were among those deciding to join him.

Becca Mann attends the 2015 USA Swimming Golden Goggle Awards at J.W. Marriot at L.A. Live on Nov. 22, 2015 in Los Angeles.

When she was 13, Mann had pushed to move from the family’s home in Homer Glen, Illinois, 25 miles southwest of Chicago, to train with Hall of Fame coach Randy Reese in Belleair, Florida. Her parents agreed, even if that meant finding a rotating cast – including mother, father, grandparents and friends – to stay with Becca in a rented Florida house.

Bob Mann, a pharmaceutical salesman, and Beth, an attorney, and their other two daughters, Rachel and Julia, remained in Illinois. Rachel, a former junior national team member in triathlon, just finished her second tear of biomedical engineering studies at Georgia Tech. Julia is a rising high school junior at Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois.

At 14, Becca Mann would finish fifth in two events and sixth in another at the 2012 Olympic pool swimming trials. A year later, having read about the championship dynamic at NBAC, she emailed Bowman to inquire about joining the group. Two months later, Mann was in Baltimore.

“I love swimming, and I like change,” she told me soon after the move. “I was looking at this group and thinking, ‘Wow!’”

From the start, she would primarily be working with Posegay, then in charge of the distance swimmers and now the NBAC head coach/CEO. That relationship was critical in her decision to stay in Baltimore.

“I knew the place for me was with him,” she said.

There was also a literary connection. The NBAC swimmers train at Meadowbrook, a pool where F. Scott Fitzgerald swam during his years in Baltimore.

“I’ve always loved writing stories,” she said. “I’ve always existed in Quanx, my own imaginary world, where I come up with ideas and just write them down. Writing and swimming are my two passions. I’m just grateful I get to live them.”

Thus her two Twitter accounts: @beccamannswims (1,537 followers) and @beccamannauthor (6,658).

Mann began working on “The Stolen Dragon of Quanx” when she was 11. She wrote the prologue and first three chapters on an iPhone during long drives to and from swim practices. Using the phone meant pages would not be illegible and get lost or wet.

Mann recently revealed the smart phone backstory on her blog:

“Note to parents: it’s not bad to give your kids a phone at a young age! They might be doing something creative with it!”

Since middle school, her schooling was largely through online courses, making her the “Mann Academy’s” first and only graduate. “And valedictorian,” she said, with a chuckle.

Her intellect would justify such an honor. She is the NBAC swimmer usually more interested in discussing the content of the quotes, from the likes of Aristotle to Van Gogh, that Posegay (and Bowman before him) puts atop the daily workout sheet than in discussing the content of the workout.

“She’ll want the quote explained… and sometimes she explains it to me,” Posegay said.

USC gives Mann a remarkable opportunity for her to hone both her crafts. Her long-term goal is to write for TV.

“I love how much time you get to develop characters on television – sometimes over several seasons,” she said.

On her recruiting trip for the swim team, she met Jack Epps, chair of the School of Cinematic Arts Writing for Screen and Television program. His credits include the screenplays for the movies “Top Gun,” “Legal Eagles,” “Dick Tracy” and “The Secret of My Success.”

The swim team’s top assistant, Catherine Vogt, also is the U.S. open water head coach.

“We’ll definitely be swimming in the Pacific a little bit each weekend,” Mann said.

The swimming scholarship was relatively a done deal given Mann’s past successes and times. Admission to the SCA writing program was a highly competitive – and subjective – process that involved submitting: several essays; a 10-page example of original work; and a scene for a screenplay about two people stuck in an elevator on New Year’s Eve; and a scene for another screenplay about two people who live together, one who wants to go out while the other wants to stay home.

Mann will be among just 26 freshmen in the screenwriting program next fall. The school does not disclose its acceptance rate.

“We truly are looking for a whole person,” USC’s Epps said. “(But) if I had to narrow down to one thing we want, it truly is a commitment to writing we see in these young students in high school or even earlier. A lot of our students started writing when they were 6 years old.

“What stands out for Becca to anybody that’s looking at her is she has deep passions and deep commitment to things she does in her life – whether it’s her swimming or her writing. We’re looking for people with that passion. Writing’s not easy: if someone doesn’t love it, they’re not going to succeed at it.”

Upon graduation with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, she will have written and polished two feature-film length scripts, two TV pilots and one episodic TV script.

Mann used “The Stolen Dragon of Quanx” as the example of original work. The book was a finalist in the Independent Authors Network 2015 book of the year awards. This is the amazon.com blurb of the plot:

In a land of tribes where people are defined by the color of their eyes, disaster is ready to strike. With peace barely hanging by a thread, the King of Vitchreonyo makes a risky decision. What he doesn’t know is that his plan may not end how he thinks…

Then Kale, a fisherman’s daughter, is trapped in a tunnel where she makes a shocking discovery. And that discovery may very well lead to the destruction of her entire world. Kale takes up a challenge of following a path forbidden to her in a race to save Quanx from a tribe of conniving dragons. With the help of three uncooperative companions, Kale must steal a dragon egg or die trying.

“I need the next one!!” said a five-star customer review.

She has begun writing book two. Mann’s feelings about the trilogy’s denouement apply as well to her Olympic quest.

“I know how I want it to end,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how it’s going to get to that point.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.