OMAHA, Neb. — Allie Szekely's excellent adventure was over — at least for now — yet she lingered on the pool deck, signing everything that was put in front of her.
Caps. Programs. Slips of paper. It didn't matter.
The 14-year-old from suburban Philadelphia kneeled down on the deck, using a folding chair to dole out variations of her name to everyone who wanted one. If nothing else, this was a name to remember for 2016.
"I'm writing it differently every time," said Szekely, breaking into a big smile that revealed her braces. "I'm kind of winging it."
She looked like an old pro in the pool, becoming a fan favorite during the morning preliminaries Friday. She had the crowd roaring when she won her heat, and they were really yelling when she returned for a swim-off at the end of the session against college swimmer Gisselle Kohoyda, the two of them battling for nothing more than the right to be first alternate for the evening semifinals — essentially, the first swimmer to get in if someone scratched.
The two were never more than inches apart in a race that would've made Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte proud. Szekely led by two-hundredths of a second at the first turn, 14-hundredths at the second, five-hundredths at the third and, finally, pulled out to win by 69-hundredths.
"It was kind of scary in the beginning, but then I got used to it," Szekely said. "Then it was really cool having everyone cheering for me every time I went up. It was really cool. It was so loud. It was great."
Store this one away. It could be the start of something great.
"We have just seen a future star," the announcer boomed out over the public-address system. "And you can say you were here to see it."
Even Kohoyda recognized that right away, pointing at the high school freshman-to-be from the next lane when the race was done.
"She's a fighter," the runner-up said. "I completely commend her for what she's done. She's 14. I'm 20. She's six years younger than me, but she fought the whole way. I'm really glad I got to compete against someone who's so strong. I wouldn't have picked anybody else."
Szekely competed in three events at Omaha, finishing 90th in the 200 individual medley and 83rd in the 10 breaststroke. But this wasn't about results. This was about an immensely talented youngster getting her first taste of the big time.
"It was cool," she said. "I've never really had this, so it was really cool. For everyone to be asking me for my signature and stuff like that, it's awesome."
Based on what she showed in her final race, she's got quite an awesome future ahead of her.
Not that she's given it a lot of thought.
Asked about the possibility of going to the Olympics someday, Szekely shrugged and said, "I guess that would be cool."
Perhaps the coolest part of this meet came after her final race, when she took a break from her autograph session long enough to notice another swimmer standing nearby.
Dara Torres, a five-time Olympian going for her sixth trip to the games at age 45.
Talk about a generation gap.
Showing no hesitation, Szekely walked over to Torres and introduced herself.
"So, you're 14?" Torres asked.
"Yes," Szekely replied.
"Good job," Torres went on.
"Thanks," the kid replied.
Then they hugged.
"Oh my God!" Szekely said, looking like someone her age who might've seen Justin Bieber. "That was so cool."
Otherwise, she handled her sudden fame with the skill of someone twice her age.
A group of fans — most of them girls about her same age — lined up at the railing to get her autograph.
"We were screaming soooo hard for you," said one girl, who was wearing a Lochte cap and T-shirt. She handed over a pile of stuff to sign. "This one is going to my coach. This one is going to charity. I think we're also going to auction this one off."
Szekely signed away with her tiny fingers, which were adorned with red, white and blue nail polish.
She had some experience at this autograph thing, but not much.
"I signed two at a meet last year," Szekely said. "So I had two total before today."
For now, it's back to the less-hectic world of junior swimming and district meets. She's looking forward to competing in high school meets next year, but it's not the only thing in her life. She also competes in cross-country running, and math is her favorite subject.
Something tells us Szekely will be signing a lot more before her career is done.
"She's a name to remember," Kohoyda said. "Write that down."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963