IN THE WEEKS after she became a swimming celebrity, Anita Nall faced a challenge as severe as the one she had just met in the pool.
When you're 14 years old and fresh off an American record in the 200-meter breaststroke, how do you handle the accompanying pressure? How do you deal with all the attention and still keep an eye on the next goal?
"It was like being an actress under constant scrutiny, sometimes without makeup but expected to be perfect every day," said Nall's coach, Murray Stephens of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "She felt under the microscope at first. The first three weeks after the senior nationals, the phones were ringing every day. All the newspapers and TV stations in Baltimore wanted her."
That was in April, after Nall, a Towson High freshman, won the 200 breaststroke at the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Spring Nationals in Seattle in 2:27.08. It was not only an American record, by a full 2 1/2 seconds, but the second fastest time ever swum, a mere 37/100ths of a second behind the world record of 2:26.71 set by East Germany's Silke Horner during the 1988 Olympics.
"Anita had to work through all the attention and get back into her training mode," Stephens said. "She's coming together now pretty well."
Now, more than four months after posting her American record, just-turned 15 Anita Nall is in Edmonton, Canada, for the Pan Pacific Championships. It is her first international meet.
Matched against competitors from Australia, Canada, Japan, China, New Zealand and other Pacific nations as well as the U.S., Nall will swim the 100 breaststroke today and the 200 Sunday, the meet's final day.
The U.S. team, which includes the top 23 women and 26 men, was chosen based on results of the nationals last spring. Nall won the 100 and 200 and was acclaimed the meet's top performer.
The Pan Pacific meet is U.S. swimming's No. 1 priority for international competition in this year before the Olympics. The winners and runners-up in the spring nationals were designated for Edmonton. Swimmers who finished third and lower qualified for the recent Pan American Games, where the competition wasn't as stiff.
"Competition is the only way you get stronger," said Mark Schubert, head coach of the women's Pan Pacific team.
Nall will have a supply of that this weekend. In today's 100 breaststroke, she is cast with Australia's Lindley Frame, who won the world title in January.
In Sunday's 200, Nall is top-seeded, but must contend not only with fellow American Kristine Quance, ranked fourth in the world and runner-up to Nall in the spring nationals, but with a fellow Baltimorean, as well. Jill Johnson, a graduate of Dulaney High and Stanford, is also in the event.
The breaststroke events, both men's and women's, were once an American weakness. It is ironic that two of the swimmers who have turned the breaststroke into a strength, Nall and 200-meter world recordholder Mike Barrowman of Potomac, are both from Maryland. Like Nall, Barrowman is now dabbling in the 100, too.
Nall spent most of this summer training under Stephens here at Meadowbrook Pool. She has been bothered off and on by a cranky knee and shoulder, but when he spoke to her by phone yesterday, she pronounced herself fit.
"She felt good and said she had done respectable times in training," Stephens said. "She has a way of overcoming adversity, the mark of a great athlete."
Before she left for Canada, Nall described the knee problem as chronic.
"It's recurring," she said. "But it's been OK for a few weeks. I guess it's because I'm still growing."
Aside from the sometimes suffocating attention from the media, Nall's life hasn't changed much since the birth of her celebrity.
"I still go to practice," she said, "and do the same things."
And in a few weeks she will do something else just as familiar -- go back to school, for the start of her sophomore year at Towson High.