`I'm goint to win that gold'; Puyallup's 16-year-old Megan Quann not only wants an Olympic gold medal in Sydney, but also the world record in the women's 100-meter breaststrok.

The thing is, you just never know. Disaster could strike. She could slip on a flower petal in the Opening Ceremonies, choke on a noodle, pull a muscle reaching for a bag in the overhead storage bin - and come home with something less than a gold medal.

Not likely. But whatever happens in Sydney, the unsinkable Megan Quann will always have something to show for the four years of back-breaking work leading up to the Games of the XXVII Olympiad.

One P.E. credit from Rogers High School.

It's what they give every Puyallup kid willing to swim 15,000 meters (about 10 miles) a day, every day, week after week, year after year. Consider it credit for time served, the hard way.

Habitual absences from school - "Dear Sir/Madam: Please excuse our daughter Megan from P.E. this year. She'll be racing Penny Heyns for the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics" - are the kinds of details you have to worry about if your life cycle is so high-geared that you turn into the fastest breaststroker in the world while you're only 16 years old.

Quann, as sure a bet for gold as you'll find on a typically well-stocked U.S. swim team, has done it the hard way.

"She's earned it," says her mother, Erin, who's been there for all those 4 a.m. wakeup calls. "She totally deserves it for all the work she's done."

Mom, like the rest of the world, sometimes can only stand in awe at the self confidence it takes to guarantee an Olympic gold medal before you're old enough to drive.

And this is precisely what Megan Quann has done.

"I'm going to be there and I'm going to race my heart out, and I'm going to win that gold," Megan blurted after blowing away the fastest field in U.S. history to win the 100-meter breaststroke at the Olympic trials last month.

And what of this minor obstacle, South Africa's Heyns, the current world record-holder and defending gold medalist?

"She's goin' down."

Put that in your torch and light it.

This youthful braggadocio makes Quann a sensation wherever she competes. There is something of an Exorcist effect at work here. People do double takes and wonder: Did I really just hear that come out of that girl's mouth? Reporters have learned very quickly that when the quote machine in a blue Speedo talks, it's time to take the safety switch off the tape recorder.

After re-breaking her American record in the 100 breaststroke at the Spring Nationals in Federal Way this year, Quann boldly predicted a demolition of Heyns' all-time best mark, 1:06.52, at the Olympic trials in August.

"I'm not going to just break the world record," she said. "I'm going to smash it."

We're still waiting for the shrapnel. All Quann did in qualifying as the youngest female swimmer on the U.S. squad last month was better her U.S. record - again, swimming 1:07.12, the fastest time in the world this year. It was the eighth time she's broken her U.S. mark, which she snatched from her old hero, Amanda Beard, in 1998.

Quann's latest record time has merely whetted her appetite for the world record, which she now vows she will claim in Sydney, where the massive Sydney Aquatic Centre will be packed with 17,500 rabid fans. But her trials qualifying time - not to mention her breathtaking progression - makes her a legitimate gold-medal favorite.

Quann will be satisfied with nothing less. In fact, she probably won't be satisfied even with the gold medal. Sydney is merely Step One in the Quann plan for world chlorinated-water domination, says her coach, Rick Benner, of Puyallup Aquatic Club.

"She wants to be the best breaststroker that there is - and ever was."

Not a small thing to accomplish before your junior prom.

Standing at the pinnacle of the ultra-competitive swim world would be a rather stupendous end to a story that began seven years ago, with Quann's parents pushing their oldest two kids toward the pool primarily as a defensive move to ward off couch potatoism.

Erin Quann, a nurse-turned-massage-therapist and husband Tom, a Puget Sound Energy engineer, both have athletic backgrounds; she was a ballet dancer, he was a water-polo player and coach at Washington State. They urged son Michael, 11, and Megan, 9, to take swim lessons and hook up with Puyallup Aquatics Club, which conducted after-school workouts.

Megan took to the water like a fish. A drowning, floundering fish. Her first time out, she couldn't swim one length of the pool without coughing, sputtering and complaining.

What kept her going?

"Most of it was sybling rivalry," she says. "My brother's two years older than me. My goal was to get out there and race him - and beat him."

Beating him turned out to be so much fun, she decided it would be pretty cool to beat everyone else, too. Quann quickly became a swimming partner to another young Puyallup phenom, Jamie Reid, who had been training since age 8. They adopted an aggressive - perhaps obsessive - training routine, and moved up through swimming's ranks together.

In 1996, Megan, all of 12 at the time, saw Beard, then a 14-year-old U.S. breaststroker, win a gold and two silvers in Atlanta. She promptly told her parents, her coach and anyone else who'd listen that, four years hence, that would be her.

Instead of laughing, her parents and coach simply laid out the terms: OK, you want to be Amanda Beard? Here's how she got there: Training, training, training. With a side of training. Topped by training.

Quann took the message to heart and has spent much of the following four years acting it out. And not exactly under the best circumstances. At 5 feet 7 and 132 pounds, Quann is a tiny splash in an Olympic-sized pool. But her workouts are huge, and take up a lane for hours on end. Few local pools have that kind of space to devote to one kid, or even a small group of them.

As a result, Quann and teammates spend hours each day shuttling by van between community pools in Puyallup, Eatonville, Tacoma and Federal Way.

An average day: Up at 4:30 a.m. Commute to the pool, in by 6 a.m., swim until 8 a.m. Go to school for only four classes (this is where the physical-education credit comes in handy) from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Strength workout at the gym, 2-3 p.m. Then another commute to the pool for a 6-8 p.m. swim workout. In bed by 9. Repeat as necessary, for four years or so.

Benner began to see Quann's competitive bloom by the time she was 12. He had to hold her back from two-a-day workouts until she was 13. He's seen few swimmers approach her tenacity toward training.

With her cavalcade of records, Benner says, some people assume Megan is some sort of aquatic natural, a Ken Griffey Jr. of the pool, if you will, who can just show up and swim fast.

Not even close.

"You wouldn't describe her as being exceptionally coordinated," he says, raising eyebrows at poolside one day. "Megan needs to work very hard refining her stroke mechanics. She's fast because she works so hard. "

Quann lives to swim. She probably would have no idea what to do with herself if she suddenly couldn't.

In spite of her exhausting training routine, Benner said he could only recall seeing her really down once, on a day she was ill.

"She came to practice in the evening, got out of the pool and threw up. I told her she had to go home. She had the flu, a fever of 103. She threw up twice on the way home in the car. And the whole time she was in tears - about not being able to train. That got her down."

In a span of five years, she turned herself, by sheer force of will, into an elite athlete.

She quickly began to post head-turning times, beating everyone else in her age group, first in the freestyle, then in the breaststroke. Along the way, Quann developed an unusual style, with an emphasis on the arm-pull portion of the wave stroke, rather than the kick.

That was by design, Benner said. It fit her body type. Today, young swimmers around the country are emulating it.

Training was refined over the years, with the addition of strength and coordination training, nutrition counseling (she has been tested for food allergies, her diet adjusted accordingly), sports psychology, therapeutic massage (administered by Mom), and a host of other space-age training trechniques.

She broke her first national record at 14, and has progressed at an astounding rate since. Today, she is the fastest U.S. woman ever in the 50- and 100-meter breaststroke and the 200 short-course breaststroke.

She arrived at last month's trials in Indianapolis ready to face the pressure cooker: Of the 1,300 athletes there, only 54, the top two in each event, qualify for the games. Megan was her usual unflappable self, besting her U.S. record yet again in preliminaries and running away with the finals. She then finished a close third in the 200-meter breaststroke, nearly qualifying for another Olympic event in a race she never started seriously swimming until this year.

Quann stunned reporters and coaches at the trials by explaining that her failure to break the world record there was merely because she hadn't curtailed her workouts - the traditional "taper" before a big meet - until a few days before. She still was swimming 15,000 meters a day, in twice-daily workouts, right up to the Indianapolis meet.

Business as usual. Two years ago, in fact, she set her first national record only three days after engaging in a Puyallup club tradition - a "24-hour swim" marathon, in which Quann swam 50,000 meters - 31 miles - over 11 hours.

The message is clear: She posted the fastest time in the world this year without even thinking about tapering. If she was that fast in Indianapolis, how fast can she be at Sydney, fully rested?

Somehow, through all of this, Quann has maintained at least the illusion that she's a normal kid.

"I look at myself as a normal person," she says. "I go out to the movies with my friends, go to the mall, go hiking. We do a lot of things as a team, also. I think I have a pretty normal life."

Her mother calls it normal, too - to a point, saying: "Her dad and I have tried to keep her as balanced as possible through this whole thing. We go on family camping trips, we go to church, she has friends, she goes to movies . . . we try and make things as well rounded as possible in the midst of this."

Benner reiterates that he and her parents have merely given her an outlet. "We can't instill that drive and determination," he says. "That's something Megan has brought to the table."

Tom and Erin Quann are well aware of the image of pushy Olympic parents. They're frank about discussing this, and say Megan was so driven to succeed, they didn't dare stand in the way.

"You've got to realize that this is her passion," Erin Quann said the day Megan qualified for the Olympics. "We did not choose this for her. She chose it for herself. We're not pushing her; we're supporting her. When someone has that much passion for something, we're not going to hold her back. That would be cruel. You've got to let somebody live their life."

Quann is living it these days to the max.

Her confidence could have been struck a blow at the trials when teammate Jamie Reid, her longtime friend, failed to qualify for the Olympics by faltering in the semifinals of the backstroke. It didn't seem to faze Megan. She's already been around the world - including Sydney - on national teams without her friends and coach, she points out.

She is absolutely at ease in front of cameras, and seems almost bemused by media attention. This is aided, perhaps, by the fact that she has only now entered the radar screen of most national media. At the Olympic trials last month, a reporter for a national newspaper spent a half hour quizzing Benner about the inner workings of Megan Quann at poolside one day - apparently unaware that Megan was seated on the bleachers not four feet away.

She listened to the entire interview, fidgeted, smiled occasionally, and said nothing.

Some of these journalists hear the world-record and gold-medal predictions and think she's a cocky kid cruising for a sound thrashing under the TV lights of the Olympics. They don't understand her psyche, Erin Quann says.

"That's just Megan," she said. "She's mentally very strong. She's not being boastful, or arrogant. That's just her way of viewing the universe. It's kind of like, `Well, if I put it out there and say it, it's going to happen.' "

Don't expect the Sydney Olympics to change Megan Quann. For her, the gold-medal race will be little more than a reenactment of the race that has always driven her: the one inside her head.

Many swimmmers endeavor to "swim their own race." Megan really does.

"I visualize my races every night before I go to bed," she said after the Olympic trials. "I visualize it with a stopwatch in my hand. Every night, my goal is to go 1:05.49. I just visualized it the other day, and on the stopwatch my time was 1:05.47."

It was the first time Quann broke the world record in her own private Olympics.

This is why the people who know her believe a gold medal is as good as on its way home, to a trophy case that already waits in Puyallup.

Quann probably is correct in assuming, Benner says, that it'll take a world-record swim to get it. And Heyns isn't her only concern. Other young swimmers from Japan and host Australia, which is gunning for the traditional-favorite U.S. in the pool in Sydney, could come from nowhere and surprise.

But Quann pays little attention to the other lanes. Her relentless pursuit of Heyns is not personal. The person beneath the world-record swimcap is irrelevant. It's her time Megan wants: 1:06.52.

"I will get that 1:05," she vows.

Not if, only when. Because in her mind, nobody on the planet has ever been faster across 100 meters of smooth, open water. In her mind, the seven other lanes are all empty. In her mind, this race has already been run - and won.

All that's left is the splashing.