STAFFORD — Don’t call it a comeback. Jeff Rouse is simply returning to the sport he loves, pursuing a feeling he missed.
To Rouse, a 31-year-old three-time Olympic gold medalist, “comeback” means there’s something to prove.
“I don’t like the term comeback,” says Rouse, a 1988 graduate of Stafford High School. “The word ‘comeback’ implies desperation.”
He’s far from desperate, but he’s definitely serious. In eight months, Rouse and his wife Gwen will move from Stafford County to Stanford University so he can train with his former college coach Skip Kenney and some of the world’s best young backstrokers.
Rouse, a member of USA Swimming’s All-Century team, also knows he has nothing to prove. He held the world record in the 100-meter backstroke for nine years and medaled twice each in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996).
Once content in retirement, he now hopes to earn his fifth Olympic medal in 2004 in Athens, Greece.
Since he made his decision to compete again, most people have offered Rouse their support without question.
But others want to know, after all he has accomplished, why he would do it.
“It’s a culmination of different things I’m thinking about,” Rouse says. “One is that sense of curiousity and wonder about the questions I’ve formulated about the whole process. That’s perhaps the deepest, purest level of why.”
In plain terms, Rouse had a desire. It’s not easy for him to put it into words, but he’s heard it compared to the “itch” Michael Jordan had when he returned recently to the NBA at age 38. Rouse says his desire is not necessarily to be as successful as he was the first time around. But he does crave the opportunity to again compete against the world’s best.
Believe it or not, Rouse was somewhat unfulfilled in his journey to the top of the swimming world.
He says “it all clicked” for him about two weeks before the 1996 Olympics. He won gold twice, in the 100-meter backstroke and 400-meter medley relay, then retired after the Games. So soon after it clicked, swimming was gone for good.
He was happily retired, out of the spotlight, back home in Stafford and living a working man’s existence with Gwen and their three dogs, Roxy, Buster and Molly.
After five years out of the pool, Rouse began swimming at a local YMCA this past June to get in shape. He was immediately invigorated just by being in the water. He and Gwen made a July 4 trip to Stanford. By August, Rouse was pretty sure he wanted to attempt a return. After consulting often with Gwen, coach Kenney, his parents and his friend Doug Newberg, a doctor of sports psychology, Rouse knew he would swim again, even though he kept it to himself.
“It wasn’t like he just one day said ‘I’m going to do it,’ ” says Gwen, an Orange native and Mary Washington graduate. “He just kept saying things about how good the water felt. … He was saying things that were showing his interest. When he said he wanted to do it, it was just a matter of me saying ‘go for it.’ ”
Rouse has already adjusted his eating habits and is working to get into training shape, wondering if two and a half years is enough time to get back to peak performance. A peak performance is what it will take to medal in Athens.
“The first thing people probably ask when they hear [that I’m returning] is ‘What about the Olympics?’ ” Rouse says. “Sure that’s a goal of mine, and I wonder if I’m going to make the Olympic team. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make the Olympic team. That’s a vital aspect of this. I wouldn’t waste my time or anybody else’s time on doing this just to make Jeff feel good. There needs to be at least a physical, attainable goal to this whole process.”
Rouse will be 34 and rebounding from a five-year layoff when the 2004 Games begin. But he’ll be training for his return with his mentor in Kenney, who is still the men’s coach at Stanford. He also won’t be far from Richard Krick, the Stanford women’s coach who helped Dara Torres win five medals at age 33 in the 2000 Olympics. But the last American man to win a medal at that age did it nearly 80 years ago.
Rouse’s attempt is rare, but not unprecedented. His former Stanford teammate Pedro Morales, now the women’s coach at Nebraska, came back from a three-year law school layoff and won a gold medal in 1992.
Rouse says his main competition will be 10-15 years his junior by the time Olympic trials roll around. The U.S. will send only two backstrokers to the games, and Rouse will be training with two of the nation’s best in Randal Bal and Peter Marshall at Stanford.
Whether he can overtake Bal, Marshall and other backstrokers like world-record holder Lenny Krayzelburg is secondary to whether Rouse can simply compete again.
“I think a big part of my swimming for me the first time around was how I actually felt when I was swimming,” Rouse says. “[Just] how the water felt as I was moving through the water.
“A big goal of mine when I competed previously was [reaching] what I call ‘easy speed.’ It’s a term that’s pretty common in swimming, but generally regarded as a state of swimming — it’s kind of like ‘the zone’ — that you get to by accident.”
In those few weeks before the 1996 Olympics, Rouse was able to get into his zone at will.
“I learned to control it a lot more,” he says. “So my goal in almost all races was to attain that easy speed, knowing that attaining it ususally led to a very good result.”
Rouse may not be able to duplicate the physical condition of his early 20s. But armed with a greater understanding of his abilities, he may be able to rise to the top of his sport again.
No matter what happens, Jeff and Gwen Rouse are about to embark on a great journey. The two met through Jeff’s cousin Rick and mutual friends — after Jeff had retired from swimming.
“When Rick introduced us, I didn’t even realize who Jeff was,” Gwen says. “I never even made the connection between Rick Rouse and Jeff Rouse [the Olympian].”
Though Gwen says Jeff still asks to make sure she’s OK with picking up her life and moving to California, a return to competition was not something she anticipated.
“It was never something I thought he’d really pursue,” she says. “When we started dating in 1997, he said that swimming was a part of his life that was over.”
Having always lived in Virginia and having never known her husband as a full-time swimmer, the opportunity appeals to Gwen.
“I’m excited about it,” she says. “Jeff still has a lot of friends out there. … I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”
And after the run is over, the couple plans to move back home to Virginia and resume a life back out of the spotlight.
Rouse’s return is about more than what medals he might win in Athens. He quotes Newberg’s studies when explaining his motivation.
Newberg once told Rouse a story about an interview with former Olympic basketball player Dawn Staley.
At first, Newberg could not get Staley to pinpoint the impetus for her drive to succeed. Then she told him this: My goal is to win an Olympic gold medal. But the reason I play basketball is to play to win, to play against the best people and be in a position to play against the best people in the world on a daily basis.
“He told Howie Long that story,” Rouse says, “and Howie Long said that’s exactly why [he] played football, to play to win.”
From the day he took his first leisurely swim at the YMCA, Rouse yearned to feel that feeling again. He’s already embarked on his quest to get there.