By KEITH McMLLAN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Finishing second in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2003 ConocoPhillips Summer National Championships was not even the most impressive thing that Stafford native Jeff Rouse accomplished on Friday.
That he was in the water at all, after his mother Gail died from cancer a week ago at age 57, was a feat in its own right.
”There’s no way I could have skipped this meet,” the one-time backstroke world record holder said. ”She’d kill me.”
The national championships, held on the University of Maryland campus, are one of a handful of key events in the 33-year-old Rouse’s preparation to attempt to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. Rouse, who won three gold and one silver medal at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, had the fastest time among 61 competitors in Friday morning’s heats. He finished second only to Stanford training teammate Randal Bal in the evening final. Rouse’s mother was one of his biggest fans, and her death on Aug. 1 affected him deeply.
”I haven’t been sleeping that good,” he admitted. ”I know it takes a toll on you, those emotions.”
Rouse also altered the routine he usually follows in the week before a race to be with his family instead. Getting back into the pool is something he said is helping him recover.
”I mourned a lot last week,” Rouse said. ”This is probably part of the healing process. Obviously I wish Mom was here? but [swimming] is therapeutic in a sense, maybe.”
Backed by a contingent of family members who rarely get to see him swim here on the East Coast, not to mention a crowd of more than 1,100 cheering spectators, Rouse surged to a lead in the morning heat and never looked back.
”I wanted to go out fast and hang on,” the 1988 Stafford High School graduate said.
Though he was less concerned about the field — which was missing the man who broke Rouse’s world record in Lenny Krayzelburg and 200-meter backstroke world record holder Aaron Piersol — than his own performance, Rouse thought a few competitors took it easy in the heat.
”I knew Randal and Neil [Walker] would cruise this morning,” the fifth-seeded Rouse said. ”I probably could have gone a little slower, but I need to swim hard every time I get the chance.”
Rouse may be the only competitor in the field with graying hair — most of his opponents are in their late teens or early 20s — and he is mindful of where he is and where he needs to be to qualify for Athens.
Rouse swam a 55.66 in the morning and 55.64 in the final, both of which bettered his seed time of 56.15.
”Every time I swim I get faster,” he said. ”It’s really now just a matter of getting to Olympic Trials.”
Rouse thinks it will take a 53 to qualify for the Olympic team during the July 2004 trials in Long Beach, Calif. Krayzelburg’s world record, set in 1999, is 53.60.
”If there are eight guys swimming a 54, I just have to be one of them,” he said. ”I’ve just got to put myself in position, and at the Olympic Trials anything can happen.”
Rouse says his age and experience may give him an advantage over his young competitors, but what really puts him in good shape are the expectations.
”I don’t have any pressure on me,” he said. ”If I don’t make the Olympic team, I don’t think anyone would be surprised.”
Rouse certainly doesn’t have anything to prove. From 1990-96, he won six U.S. National Titles in the 100 backstroke and another in the 200 back. He won silver in the 100 backstroke and gold in the medley relay at Barcelona, then won gold in both events in Atlanta in 1996. He retired from the sport soon thereafter and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2001.
Later that same year, he set out to return to the sport after re-discovering his desire while working out in an area YMCA pool. He’s since moved to Menlo Park, Calif. to train at Stanford with Skip Kenney, who coached him in college.
”I think it’s gone according to how I thought it would,” Rouse said. ”I would always like to be a little faster, but I say that every time.”
Rouse thinks, based more on what he’s done in recent practices than what he did on Friday, that he’s on pace in his return.
”But there’s still some work to do over the next year,” he said.
Though as a competitor he can’t help but look ahead, what Rouse did on Friday, given the circumstances, may have been as impressive as any of his more-heralded swims.