Four years ago, Jeff Rouse stood with pain, not pride, on an Olympics medal podium in Barcelona. Feeling beaten. Feeling silver. Wanting to crawl into a Spanish hole. At age 22, the Stanford senior had been expected to win the 100-meter backstroke. Rouse held the world record.
Instead of hearing the Star-Spangled Banner
that humid European night, the young man from Virginia would listen to O Canada, in celebration of Mark Tewksbury's upset victory.
"Standing there in 1992, feeling lonely even if all the world was watching, I immediately rededicated myself with a new and more mature kind of drive," Rouse recalls. "I made a silent promise.
"My vow was to grind harder than ever during the coming four years. O Canada is a wonderful anthem, but it kept ringing in my ears. I promised to make myself a better swimmer and a better person. To wind up on an Atlanta Olympics platform in 1996; gold dangling from my neck; hearing the Star-Spangled Banner being played."
Tuesday night, at age 26, Rouse's second Olympic chance would be magic. He won. He dominated. Barcelona's agony was washed away by Georgia waters. A quadrennial of fight-back dedication had delivered the coveted dividends. Rouse wept for joy, standing with his gold and hearing his song on a memorably warm Georgia evening.
"A few days ago, I called Mark Tewksbury in Canada and thanked him for beating me in Barcelona," Rouse said, his eyes red with golden delight. "I never felt as though I blew the race in 1992. Mark just swam great. Many, many people chose to see it differently.
"If I'd won in Barcelona, my ensuing dedication would not have been the same. I would not have grown up as much as a human being. I would not have learned how to properly handle adversity. I would not be feeling this satisfaction and sensation now in Atlanta. Thank you, Mark."
Rouse took a battering after his Barcelona near-miss. He was called a gagger. Media commentators and swimming mavens were nasty. Even in the moments before his Tuesday night race, the studious Virginian continued to be burdened with a bruised reputation: a dazzling relay racer who was prone not to deliver major solo conquests.
Jeff extinguished his critics.
"When I had at last won my Olympic gold, I didn't want to leave the pool," he said. "I wanted to drink the moment for a long, long time. They had to chase me out of the water so the next race could be run."
His eyes were flooding. Rouse looked into a cheering crowd at the Georgia Tech Aquatics Center, searching for those who never quit loving him. "There were maybe 25 family and friends up there," he said. "I'd checked them out long before, even as I came out with the other seven finalists for the race. I saw their faces, heard their voices and plugged in to their energy."
Rouse can relax now. He's an Olympic champ. Got his gold. Heard his anthem. "I'm moving back home to Virginia," he said. "I've skipped a lot of fun swimming events since Barcelona, so I could keep grinding as hard as possible in my training routine. I'd like to enjoy some of those experiences now. Atlanta has been handled."
He has a Stanford degree in economics. "Before long, I may have to consider getting an honest job and earning a living," Rouse said. "But I'm going to enjoy this gold-medal status.
"I'm planning to talk with as many children as possible. To tell them my Olympic story. Maybe it'll help some kid who finds himself or herself having to deal with adversity; having to overcome negative things that people may be saying about them."
Rouse is smart, stylish and heroically scrupled. When it became apparent in 1994 that world swimming was coming under the powerful influence of too many athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, the so-called "choker" from Barcelona became a one-man lobby against illegal substances in swimming.
He circulated a petition among international swimmers. "Chinese women had become a major concern," Rouse said. "It's just dead wrong for an athlete to have illegal fuel pumped into his or her system; then to go out and dominate the globe's biggest competitions.
"I got about 450 signatures. Maybe it did some good with the governing organizations of swimming. I just heard a media person say this may be the cleanest competition in some time. I don't want any credit, but if my move happened to help, well, that's great. Let's keep it going and make swimming totally cheater-free."
Choker? Probably never was.