By Phil Hersh, Chicago Tribune Reporter
BALTIMORE — Becca Mann says “The Stolen Dragon of Quanx” is close to being published, perhaps early next month. And she might have completed the 450-page manuscript for the first installment of the planned “Eyes Trilogy” sooner if so many other things hadn’t taken up her time.
There were the frequent trips from southwest suburban Chicago to the west coast of Florida to work with an eminent coach and finally a move south for Mann three years ago. Then another move, in January, to Baltimore, as Mann continued to seek the coaching she felt would further her swimming career.
And there was swimming in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, where she was fifth in two events and sixth in a third. Competing in the open water events at the 2013 World Championships. Winning her first U.S. open water title in June. Preparing to swim five pool events at the U.S. championships Aug. 6-10 in Irvine, Calif., where she will be a podium contender in the distance freestyles and individual medleys and can get a leg up on making the 2015 world team.
Not to mention school.
It all meant Mann needed to take a year’s break from writing “The Stolen Dragon of Quanx.” When she got back to it, much of the first couple of chapters needed reworking, not surprising since Mann first had written them at age 11.
She is only 16 now.
She wants no extra credit for being precocious.
“I don’t like to think of accomplishments based on my age,” Mann said. “I don’t judge myself against anything.”
For an athlete, that really cannot be the case because results and times always will be measures of accomplishment. By those standards, even in a sport like women’s swimming where youth frequently is served, Mann’s early success is impressive.
And getting a book ready to be self-published by age 16 isn’t bad, either. Where that goes remains to be seen. But think of another fantasy genre writer, Christopher Paolini: he wrote a first draft of “Eragon” at 15, self-published it with his family three years later, had the book picked up by a major publisher and later made into a movie.
“Very interesting!” Mann wrote in an email after learning the back story of Eragon’s success.
Mann’s mother, Beth, a real estate attorney, was not initially aware that her daughter had begun writing a book.
She also was not surprised that the middle of her three children was doing it.
“I would expect that,” Beth Mann said. “Everyone has projects in our house.”
Make that houses.
The biggest project may be keeping track of who is doing what, when and where in households with schedules so complicated no one dares miss one of the regular family calendar meetings that allow Beth Mann to make sure everyone is accounted for. That includes Dock, a beach stray cat from Florida whom the Manns took in, brought to Baltimore and fly to Illinois to join Becca’s other cat, Backstroke, when she is on long swimming trips.
“I’m a big planner,” Beth Mann said, grievously understating the truth outlined in her three family calendars.
She and Becca are sitting in the dining room of a rented house about a mile uphill from Meadowbrook, a pool where literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald swam during his years in Baltimore, the pool where Becca trains with the aquatic giants of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. It is as if her being at Meadowbrook owes more to destiny than coincidence, that this is the place where a young writer/swimmer should be.
Especially because few young people have taken charge of their destinies as thoroughly as Becca Mann has.
It was she who pushed at age 13 for the move to Belleair Beach, Fla., so she could train full time with swimming Hall of Fame coach Randy Reese. Her parents went along with the idea despite its logistical consequences, which included making sure someone was in the rented house in Florida — mother, father, grandparent, friend — to be with Becca.
“We never thought of saying no,” Beth Mann said. “Life is supposed to be fun.”
There was no stated quid pro quo involved from Becca because of what the family was doing for her. There did not need to be.
“I always give 100 percent,” Becca Mann said. “They knew when they told me I could move that I would do everything in my power to make myself the best I can be while also having a lot of fun doing it.”
She eventually would turn to home schooling, with teachers at her former grade school, Noonan Academy in Mokena, overseeing the work through eighth grade. Beth Mann then found teachers in Florida to work with Becca, and they continued teaching via Skype through the end of this school year — her sophomore year of high school.
Meanwhile, her sisters, Rachel, 18, and Julia, 14, kept living in Homer Glen, where their father, Bob, has based his pharmaceutical sales business.
“It’s really not normal, but we make it work,” Mann said, punctuating her thought, as she does frequently, with a staccato laugh. “We’re nomads.”
Rachel, who graduated from Benet Academy in June, is headed to Georgia Tech in August to begin studies in biomedical engineering. She is a junior national team member in triathlon who just spent two weeks backpacking in Europe, will compete in the U.S. Triathlon junior elite championships Aug. 2 in Ohio, spend a few days in Irvine watching Becca race and then go to Milwaukee for the senior sprint distance championship Aug. 10.
Julia, about to begin her freshman year at Benet Academy, is the sister who at 8 earned $500 one summer making scented, colored soaps and selling them in the neighborhood.
“Everybody in our house is filled with internal drive,” Beth Mann said.
Becca felt driven to join NBAC when she began reading last summer about all the big-name swimmers joining the Bob Bowman-coached group Michael Phelps headlines and includes seven Olympic medalists.
“I love swimming, and I like change,” she said. “I was looking at this group and thinking, ‘Wow!'”
So she emailed Bowman last November, came for a tryout last December and moved to what she calls “swimming heaven” in January.
“She is hyper focused on what wants to do, and fearless in training,” Bowman said. “She always asks for the hardest workout.”
At the beginning, Mann quickly found she wasn’t in the shape to handle such workouts against training rivals like Allison Schmitt, 2012 Olympic champion in the 200-meter freestyle and silver medalist in the 400 free, and Denmark’s Lotte Friis, 2013 world silver medalist in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles.
Mann, two years younger than any of the NBAC elite swimmers, began to keep up after adding the first intensive and regular dry-land workouts to her training. Her expressed joy at the anticipation of a particularly brutal pool session led Friis to bar Mann from using the words “fun” and “exciting.”
“There is always somebody in this group having a great day in the pool,” Mann said, “and if you’re not having a good day, you’re going to get killed. I love that there is always someone faster than you. It’s a really big part of getting faster yourself.”
Mann showed off both her speed and fitness at the May Grand Prix meet in Charlotte. She swam 12 races in seven events over four days, including the 400 IM, 400 and 800 free, took second in four finals and set personal bests in the two long freestyle races.
“What impresses me most is how quickly she made a big technical change in her freestyle,” Bowman said.
Like most open water swimmers, Mann tended to keep her head high in the water. She now has a much lower head position in the pool, which is also where Mann trains for the open water events, at distances of 5,000 and 10,000 meters. She was eighth in both at the 2013 worlds, where she also was the second youngest in the fields.
Mann wants to make the 2016 Olympics in both open water and pool swimming. One of her NBAC teammates, Ous Mellouli of Tunisia, not only did that in 2012 but he also won the open water gold medal and took the 1,500 freestyle bronze in the pool.
For now, there are pool nationals to swim and a book to get published. The cover went online last month.
Near the end of the book, in Chapter 18 of 20, a fisherman’s daughter, Kale, has grasped the enormity of her undertaking to save Quanx from conniving dragons. She understands the effort will be worth nothing if it fails.
This is, in Mann’s words, the moment of Kale’s epiphany:
The reality of the situation hit her even quicker and stronger than Karl’s sword had cut across her eye. Until now, the journey had seemed like some distant adventure filled with action and glory.
A bit of autobiography? Becca Mann demurred.
“I can’t really relate to it,” she said, ” since my journey is exciting no matter the outcome.”