Rouse adds happy ending to his career

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - On reflection, Jeff Rouse wouldn't change a thing. Not the six-hundreths of a second that separated him from a gold medal in Barcelona. Not the four years that followed on the road toward redemption.

The U.S. swimmer climbed out of the Olympic pool Tuesday night and thanked Canada's Mark Tewksbury for beating him in the 100-meter backstroke back in 1992. Had he not come in second in the Summer Games of Spain, Rouse said, he could not have finished first on home ground in Atlanta. Nor could he have known himself as well as he does now.

Rouse's personal voyage of discovery was launched by defeat.

''The loss in '92 helped me refocus and helped me realize what's important,'' he said. ''Really, what matters in life is not what we do in the pool or what medals we win, but the integrity of our life and what kind of person we are.

''Basically, I put my life in perspective . . . What I've learned about myself is that I'm not just a swimmer. I'm a pretty good guy also, probably a better person than I am a swimmer.''

'Choker' tag is gone

Jeff Rouse has been the world's best backstroke sprinter since at least 1991, and yet the 26-year-old Virginian could still find validation in Tuesday's victory. He already owned the world record in the 100-meter backstroke, but he had set it leading off a medley relay a day after Tewksbury had touched him out in '92.

He had saved his best race for the wrong night, and created the impression of a man who wasn't equal to his most important moments.

''As far as being tagged a choker, like I know I've been called before, I've only lost two big races,'' Rouse said. ''I don't consider myself losing that race (in Barcelona). I just got beat.

''I never went through a depression. I asked myself a lot of: Whys? 'Why did it happen to me? Why now?' I was never depressed, only confused.''

Among the unmistakeable marks of a champion is resilience. Greatness only goes so far without grit. Even as Rouse was being presented with the silver medal in Barcelona, he resolved to return for the gold.

''Standing on the medals stand, listening to the Canadian national anthem, I immediately dedicated myself to getting to Atlanta,'' he said.

Another man might have called it a career. Some surely would have asked themselves if another step on the medals stand was worth four more years of pre-dawn laps, of the lingering aroma of chlorine, of being seen as obsessive.

Yes, swimming is a lucrative sport now for star-quality competitors. Rouse says he can make more competing than he could with his Stanford economics degree.

Still, he turned down some big-money European meets rather than tamper with his training. This quest was more about closure than it was about cash.

Went according to script

''I knew,'' he said, ''that this is what I needed to do.''

When the hour of his deliverance came due, Jeff Rouse knew exactly how he wanted it to unfold.

He walked out on the pool deck at the Georgia Tech Aquatics Center determined to find his friends and family in the crowd, searching for a reminder that he would be loved even if he lost. He had imagined this night so many times, that a script had inevitably evolved.

The race itself was a rout. Rouse's time of 54.10 seconds was nearly a quarter-second slower than his world record, but it was .88 of a second faster than that of silver medalist Rodolfo Falcon of Cuba. A remarkable margin in a sprint race.

''I had a sense that Lane 5 (Neisser Bent, the bronze medalist) was on my hip,'' Rouse said. ''I couldn't see Lane 3 (Falcon). I knew if I swam my best, someone was going to have to beat me.

''It just went by too fast. I imagined winning for so long, went through every scenario I possibly could. I wanted to stay in the pool for another 10 minutes and savor the moment. But unfortunately the consolation heat had to swim.''

Jeff Rouse has no need for consolations now. He has finished what he started, and he has finished first.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 24, 1996.