Maxime Rooney Primed to Go After Big Goals at Olympic Trials

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder

Two weeks before high school graduation, most 18-year-olds are plenty occupied with their last assignments and celebrating with their closest friends.

But Maxime Rooney’s experience was different. He swam the 200 freestyle at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara against two-time Olympic gold medalist Sun Yang.

“I’m not going to say race with him because it wasn’t really a race—he was in a heat with him!” said Steve Morsilli, Rooney’s coach with the Pleasanton Seahawks.

The Chinese distance ace won that race in the fastest time in the world this year (1:44.82), and Rooney touched four seconds later with a fifth-place time of 1:48.85.

But that gap was of no immediate concern to Rooney. He was pleased just to finish up some pressing school projects with his graduation coming up on Friday, June 17, and to see proof of his improvement in the pool.

“It is my season best, very pleased. We’re looking for constant progression throughout the season as we’re maintaining a workload,” Rooney said. “I was 1:49.5 in finals last year in Santa Clara. I think it’s showing great how our timing is popping right for Olympic Trials.”

It’s nothing new for Rooney to fixate on consistent improvements. Morsilli explained how even during his career as a young age-grouper he attacked every time goal or record that his coaches presented him with.

“We’ve had him in the program since he was eight, so he kind of grew up chasing those things,” Morsilli said. “Not necessarily because of pressure, but because he was able to, and those excited him. I don’t know what makes him that good—he just is that good.”

Beyond just chasing goal times, Rooney is constantly seeking even the smallest gains in technique and race strategy, poring over videos of his races and asking his coaches to watch him in practice as he works on strokes details such as head and neck position.

Rooney’s nonstop attention to detail demands significant communication with his coach, and early on, it rubbed Morsilli the wrong way.

“I wasn’t real happy with how much he wanted to talk to me,” Morsilli said. “Once I finally said something to him after practice, things got great. He’s just one of those guys that needs to talk and be verbal about what’s going on and asking questions.”

It was years of focused swimming in practice and in races that propelled Rooney from 48th in the 200 free in 2014 to his first National title last summer in San Antonio.

Initially, that day was no different for Rooney than any other at previous championship meets. In prelims, he lowered his personal best from 1:49.19 to 1:48.68 to pick up the fourth seed for the final.

But when Rooney arrived in the ready room for the final, he felt present in a way he had not sensed before.

“I decided, ‘Let’s just go for it,’” he said. “I was really focused on one goal, sticking to my race strategy and executing the race the best way I know how to. That was my only focus. And I think that’s what probably made the difference.”

Rooney went out fast and led wire-to-wire, holding off Zane Grothe by just one one-hundredth of a second. His time of 1:47.10 dropped more than a second and a half from the lifetime best he had swum hours earlier.

But Rooney did not let himself get too excited about his breakout swim—he had to refocus on the 100 fly the very next day. It was not until after that meet and a trip to Singapore for the Junior World Championships that he had a chance to sit down with Morsilli to reflect and to reset his goals for the Olympic year.

After such a successful 2015, neither Rooney nor Morsilli wanted to change too much about his training.

“It was really more along the lines of fine-tuning all the details, increasing bodyweight strength and ultimately just working the hardest that I’ve ever worked,” Rooney said.


Photo Courtesy: Donna Nelson

Rooney knows that more will be at stake at the U.S. Olympic Trials than at any other meet of his swimming career to-date. Just like his training will stay mostly the same, so too will his approach on race day.

“Every swim is going to be high pressure just because of the environment that we’re in,” he said. “I just want to focus on the plan, the goals that I set with my coach. Focus on what I can do and not focus on what other people are doing.”

Surely, though, something must change about Rooney’s mindset from any typical age group or high school meet when he gets the spectacle of a meet that is Olympic Trials, with 15,000 pairs of eyeballs on him?

Rooney listened patiently as I went through the long-winded question. “Yeah, absolutely,” he said, indicating that he understood what I was asking.

Then he proceeded to totally dismiss the notion.

“Nothing’s different. It’s still a pool. It’s still a meet,” Rooney said.

“The only thing that different is the names on the sheets. Obviously I’m going to be racing guys a lot older than high school kids, but ultimately, they’re all still competitors, and I need to remember that it’s still a pool, it’s still water, there’s still blocks, it’s still four laps or two laps.”

Rooney rattled off a list of the big names he had gone up against for the first time in the past year, including James Guy and Velimir Stjepanović at the World Cup in Doha, Conor Dwyer and Matias Koski for at Winter Nationals and Sun and James Magnussen in Santa Clara.

Rooney has a strong chance to become the first teenager to make the U.S. men’s Olympic team since 2008 and the first younger than 19 to make the team since 2000, but that’s not something he concerns himself with.

“Ultimately, when we get to this kind of level, age doesn’t matter—it’s about competing,” Rooney said. “I’m not looking to break a streak. I’m just looking to be the best I can be.”

Since the start of 2015, only Ryan Lochte and Dwyer—both Olympic gold medalists—have swum faster than Rooney has in the 200 free. Rooney and Morsilli both know that his recent track record of improvement should put him in the mix for a top-six finish in the 200 free and perhaps even the 100 free in Omaha—but it won’t be easy.

“Last year, he put himself in the mix,” Morsilli said. “He kind of came out of the woodwork. That’s easy—nobody sees you fail when you’re coming out of the woodwork. He’s got a target on his back. He knows people are looking at him, some of the big guys.”

Rooney does have some experience representing the U.S. internationally from his time last August in Singapore. At Junior Worlds, he won gold in the 200 free and silver in the 100 free, and he added medals on all three American relays.

“I still look at the pictures a lot just because of how fun it was and the memories we made. I still get shivers sometimes,” Rooney said.

He fondly recalls three moments from the meet: finishing first in the 200 free with fellow California-native Grant Shoults taking second, teaming up with Shoults, Grant House and Sean Grieshop to win gold in the 800 free relay and set a new Junior World record, and the moment when Team USA was honored as the top team of the meet.


Photo Courtesy: Singapore Swimming Federation

“I remember James Jones leading ‘I Believe that We Just Won,’” he said. “It’s amazing that I get to be a part of that—I get to be a part of one of the greatest swimming nations in the world.”

Rooney hopes for an opportunity to be able to do so again in August—this time having jumped from the junior level to the senior national team. But even if he doesn’t reach his goals at Trials, he won’t let that meet define his senior year as unsuccessful.

“It’s been a long, great year,” Rooney said. “I think I’m going to view it as an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to make myself better in the end.”

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