When Lightning Strikes at Olympic Trials: An Exclusive Interview with the Rocket Man, Roque Santos

By Phillip Whitten

At the 1992 Olympic Trials, Roque Santos pulled off one of the great upsets in US Olympic Trials history, upsetting Curl-Burke teammate Mike Barrowman, the world record-holder. Mike went on to win in Barcelona, setting what was then thee world record at 2:10.16 – a time that held up as the world record until last year, the American record until this year’s Trials, and remains the Olympic record.

Roque, a little off his best in the ’92 Olympic prelims, just missed making the finals in Barcelona,

Since then, Roque has remained in the sport, working for Nike Swim and competing regularly along with his wife, Debby, in Masters meets aand winning a handful of national Masters titles.

We caught up with the personable Rocket Man just before this year’s Trials and asked him to reflect on his experience at Trials.

SwimInfo: You came to the Olympic Trials in 1992 as a decided underdog. What was your mindset as you arrived in Indianapolis for the Trials?

Santos: My mindset going into the ’92 Olympic Trials was that I had absolutely nothing to lose because people didn’t really expect me to make the team. But I wanted to see how good I could be.

SwimInfo: What did you do to prepare yourself?

Santos: That’s a hard question to answer because there were many different things that I did to prepare myself. There’s the physical training and there’s the race strategy, of course. But what really is the hardest part, I think, is the mental preparation of knowing what to expect during warm-up, before the race and during the race.

SwimInfo: And what did you do to prepare mentally?

Santos: I think I learned from the master, Mike Barrowman. As you know, we were training together along with Sergio Lopez, and in practice daily he would do things that would make him think about why he did it, why he said something, and it was really complicated. I just wanted to prepare myself to truly believe in myself and not let any outside factors influence me negatively.

I wanted to look at everything as positive–even if I had a bad warm-up or a bad split. In warm-up, I looked at it as “it’s going to get better from here.” So I focused and prepared myself mentally to do the best I could do on that day.

SwimInfo: Your 200-meter breaststroke race at the ’92 Trials was one of the great upsets in US Olympic Trials history. Describe how that race unfolded for you.

Santos: Well there’s something that I think that I did that goes along with what I said. I think that two mistakes that people make when they’re racing is that they worry about other people and negative thoughts come in their head — you know, thoughts like “my arm hurts” or “I’m breathing heavy,” “I feel heavy in the water” — and then they concentrate on those negative aspects. So part of my training – my mental training — was to throw in a positive affirmation during the race to help myself.

In my 200 breaststroke, in the finals, just before the 150 turn I started screaming in my head “now, now, now.” That really brought in a lot of positive energy to me at the right time — just when I needed it in the race. Toward the end of the race, I wasn’t focused on “I need to beat Mike, I need to beat Mike.” My focus was, “I need to get to the wall, I need to get to the wall.” So again, it wasn’t about trying to beat somebody else; it was about trying to really do the best for me.

SwimInfo: That photo taken of you when you turned around and saw that you had won and had gone a 2:13 is one of the classic photos in our sport. What was going through your mind at that moment?

Santos: Well, I know when I touched the wall I knew I made the team and I was happy about that. It took a while for me to look up at the clock to realize that I had beaten the world record-holder — a guy that I trained with every day that I rarely beat in practice, at a really critical time. I had so much respect for Mike and the way he trained and prepared for his swims.

At that moment I was literally shocked, and I remember a warm feeling in my heart that simply burst out. That’s the only way I can describe that feeling at that moment. Just shock.

Then, my next thought was, “Wow, I can’t act like some people act after they race because it really upsets other people.” Then it occurred to me: “What about Mike/” If you watch the video you’ll see that I actually kissed Mike on the hand to kind of say “Damn, sorry I beat you,” or “I’m sorry I acted the way I did, but I was so incredibly excited”! Because again, I still retained an incredible respect for Mike as an athlete and as a person.

SwimInfo: Was there any additional satisfaction in knowing that the two of you had made the team together?

Santos: Mike was expected to make the team, so it wasn’t like Mike was so excited that he made the team. It was more like, if he didn’t make the team that would be the shock. Or, his getting beaten was a big shock. I knew that Mike was one of my biggest fans because we trained together and knew exactly what the other guy was going through, every minute, every day. There was tremendous respect that we earned with each other as we battled day-after-day, pushing each other to be better – not just the two of us, but Sergio (Lopez) too.

So Mike, I think, was one of the happiest people in Indianapolis when I made the team. Even though he may not have been particularly happy with his own swim, he was very happy with mine, as he was for the next five months — the Trials were in March then and the Olympics were in July. He was excited to have a good training partner with him, one who would help prepare him for the next step.

SwimInfo: What were your feelings after the meet was over? Were they any different from those you had immediately after the 200 breast?

Santos: I think that the weird thing is when you make the Olympic team as an underdog–and there was like two or three days of trials after my races, but I was done and I was there just to watch my friends try to make the team and be a part of it all–it was weird how all of a sudden — and it was all of a sudden — people looked at you differently, talked to you differently. It was just a weird thing because inside you’re going, “I’m just the same kid I was a little while ago, but all of a sudden I am different.” Still to this day I am different now, because of that one moment.

SwimInfo: Different in what ways, Roque?

Santos: Just different, because when you meet people and you tell them, or somebody in the group tells, “he was an Olympian,” all of a sudden the eyebrows pick up and people then look at you differently. It’s a weird thing.

Back in ’93 I remember being introduced to a movie or television star and someone said, “He went to the Olympics.” All of a sudden his eyes just lit up and it was like, “Wow, I’m very happy to meet you now.”

It was just a weird thing. I thought, “I’m just Roque.” You know me Phil. You know I’m just Roque. When somebody acts like that, or you see it sometimes in little kids–a 12 year old or 13 year old–somebody introduces you as an Olympian and they just go “Wow!” And along with that comes instant respect

SwimInfo: Yeah, but you’ve earned that respect…

Santos: The best thing about it is that, yeah, you did earn it. And the fact that there are great swimmers out there who didn’t earn it, swimmers who should have, that’s a sad part of swimming. But for people who have earned it, it’s a really unbelievable experience.

SwimInfo: Now when you got to Barcelona, you didn’t perform as well as you did at the Trials. What happened there?

Santos: To me, I think I did a great job at the Olympic Games. The difference was that I had a different race strategy on that morning swim and I actually only swam 1.2 seconds slower in the morning in Barcelona than I did at the Olympic Trials. That same time, had I done it in the prelims four years later — at the ’96 Games in Atlanta – that same time would have seeded me fourth. So 1992 was a tough year in the 200 breaststroke.

Swiminfo: Yeah, in fact, if I’m not mistaken, your 2:14.71 from the ’92 prelims would also have made top eight at the 2000 prelims. So, unfortunately for you, ’92 was the toughest year — though it’s clear thi summer’s Games in Athens will finally be faster.

Santos: So that’s 12 years later. Until this year, ’92 was the toughest to get into the 200 breast final. I only missed it by 3/100 of a second. I believe I had a poor race strategy because I tried to do something different. Looking back, I tried to pick up the pace too early. I should have waited to pick it up because I kind of died at the end.

I missed the finals by 3/100 of a second. I know I could have done a lot better with a different race strategy. But that’s a risk you take sometimes and I’m proud of my swim. I’m proud that I swam in the consolations and I tried to go back to my race strategy. I did poorly in my consolation and it was, in my opinion, because it was the first time in my life that I ever swam a race after the finals. Back then they swam the final first.

The final was already over, I had no chance to medal, but I still had to get up there and swim. All of the energy went into the race before – the final. That’s where I wanted to be.

There’s a lot to swimming in the final – swimming in that moment, in that time, with the crowd going crazy when you are introduced. That’s so different from being an afterthought. Mentally, that really took a toll on me. I’m honest with you when I say that I know I was in the best shape of my life and I was ready to go a best time, but I never had a chance to swim in the final.

SwimInfo: You know, I think if they had gone back to a semifinal format back then, you obviously would have been in the semis…

Santos: Oh yeah, I totally believe that for me, because of the way we trained, that the more chances I got to swim the better I would do because the intensity of our training was so incredible. It’s too bad the event wasn’t eight 200s on five minutes, because I would have done even better.

SwimInfo : So now it’s 12 years later. How does it feel to be back at the US Olympic Trials again?

Santos: I know Dara (Torres) has talked about what it’s like now to be at Trials. I’ve really looked forward to it. That’s the only chance, every four years, where I get to remember what that feeling’s like. You feel so happy for those people who earn a spot on the team. And for the people who don’t, your heart goes out to them. The emotions at Trials are just awesome to watch, and, to some extent, to share. Just to be a part of the competitors, even if I don’t know them, to watch them and see their reactions, that’s incredible.

Of course I do know some of the swimmers and have followed their careers for a long time. It’s also fun to watch those people and, in some small way, to be a part of their experience. It’s really a fun part of life.

SwimInfo: Well its been great talking with you, Roque. Thanks for a terrific interview.

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