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Florida senior Sebastien Rousseau won three titles at the SEC Championships and now has sights set on NCAAs.

Tuesday March 11, 2014Strong Finish: Rousseau Strives for More after Breakout Performance at SECs

Florida senior Sebastien Rousseau won three titles at the SEC Championships and now has sights set on NCAAs.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The lean, athletic and stoic kid on the South African Olympic Team was clearly talented in the pool. Gators swimming coach Gregg Troy didn’t need his glasses to recognize that at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Sebastien Rousseau, about a month away from his 18th birthday, was a raw and rising star for the South Africans when he recalls first meeting Troy. Rousseau’s coach, a charismatic Hungarian named Karoly von Toros, knew Troy from years of attending the same international events and introduced the two.

At the moment they shook hands, Rousseau wasn’t thinking about coming to the U.S. for college or much else other than trying to swim his best in Beijing.

Rousseau’s first trip to the Olympics was unremarkable if measured only by performance, but life-altering because of the straightforward and short conversation with Troy.

Soon after returning home to Cape Town, Rousseau turned his attention to the future. An opportunity to swim competitively and go to college – not a viable option at home – began to seem more and more attractive.

Eventually, a plan was put in motion. Rousseau garnered a collection of offers and decided sign with the Gators during a whirlwind trip to the U.S. to visit multiple schools.

“It was definitely Coach Troy,’’ Rousseau said of the decision. “I looked at a lot of good schools. It was a tough decision for me. He is just very up front. He doesn’t like to sugarcoat things and that reminds me of my coach back home. I was really attracted to that.

“It’s tough for some people because it comes across as harsh, but he’s just giving you what he’s seeing and I think that’s the most important part for me.”

Meanwhile, Troy wanted to know more about Rousseau so he packed his suitcase and flew to Cape Town, a coastal city at the southern tip of South Africa where Rousseau’s family moved from Johannesburg when he was a young child.

Rousseau was all business at the pool and Troy embarked on a fact-finding mission to learn more about a potential future leader of his UF men’s team.

Troy soon saw more than a talented athlete. He started to understand Rousseau’s drive and his character as he visited with Rousseau’s parents, Vanessa and Sybi. He learned more about Rousseau’s rise to become one of his country’s top amateur swimmers.

Rousseau trained under von Toros with the Vineyard Swim Club. To get his practice in, Rousseau drove 45 minutes one-way across town several days a week.

“He often trained at odd hours in a facility that by our standards here in the states was adequate at best,’’ Troy said. “You knew there was a big upside.”

There was more than upside. There was a determination to be great, the kind of fortitude that can’t be taught. It can only come from within.

That excited Troy, an assistant in Beijing who served as the U.S. Olympic Team’s head coach in 2012 at the London Olympics.

“You cold see that right away,’’ Troy said. “Sebastien was fairly mature even at that age, just in how he handled himself in a worldly manner.”

*****

A fifth-year senior, the 23-year-old Rousseau’s UF career reached new heights last month at the SEC Swimming Championships at the University of Georgia.

Rousseau helped the Gators win their second consecutive conference title by winning three individual events: the 200-meter freestyle, 200 individual medley and 200 butterfly.

Sebastien Rousseau

Rousseau won the men’s Commissioner’s Trophy for scoring the most points at the meet and earned SEC Swimmer of the Year honors.

Each of Rousseau’s three victories was tightly contested.

“That’s been the most complete meet I’ve had so far,’’ Rousseau said. “It just kind of clicked this time.”

The victories didn’t come without some turbulence. In the 200 IM, Rousseau had to overcome not being able to see during the race. His goggles came off.

“In the past that would have been a disaster for him,’’ Troy said. “We’ve seen [his resiliency] more and more from him this year.”

Nearly six years after their first encounter, Troy beamed over Rousseau’s dedication paying off in such a meaningful way. Rousseau became the 10th male swimmer in the program’s history to be named SEC Swimmer of the Year.

“We’ve always felt there was a little more there than what you saw sometimes,’’ Troy said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He has a lot of pride in what he is doing. He’s finally learned to put all those pieces together.”

Rousseau’s best work usually comes when no one is watching – at practice.

Rousseau is not the most vocal leader – he said that’s not his style – but when he jumps into the pool, others can hear his message by watching.

Freshman Mitch D’Arrigo has a similar background to Rousseau. An up-and-comer in Italy, D’Arrigo’s options at home were slim to continue his education and his development as one of his country’s top young swimmers.

D’Arrigo opted to come to American for college and is one of the Gators’ most talented newcomers. He is impressed by Rousseau’s dedication the same way Troy was when he visited South Africa five years ago.

“He’s probably the best in training; he is the most constant,’’ D’Arrigo said. “There’s not many guys in the world, I think, who can beat him in training. Every day he is always there to race.”

Rousseau’s path toward becoming one of UF’s most decorated swimmers was boosted the summer before he arrived in Gainesville. He made his first individual final at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. The experience elevated his confidence.

When he joined the Gators his intense training style fit in perfectly with such swimmers as former UF stars Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer, who were training for the 2012 Olympics here.

“It just happens as such a fast pace,’’ Rousseau said of his unexpected career. “If you take the time to look back, you realize what an amazing experience you have had. It’s completely different to what any of my friends have back home. I really appreciate the opportunity I have here.”

*****

Rousseau’s college career comes to a close later this month at the NCAA Championships March 27-29 in Austin, Texas. Vanessa and Sybi will make the trip from Cape Town to watch.

During the SEC Championships, the couple woke up in the middle of the night back home and watched a live stream of Rousseau’s races on the internet, then went back to bed once the excitement wore off.

Rousseau plans to return home this spring to begin preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Scotland in July. Once that event is over, he will return to Gainesville to continue training at UF in preparation for his ultimate goal, winning a medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. He is on pace to earn a sports management degree in December.

The South African contingent at the Olympics has improved drastically at the past two Summer Games. In London, South Africa won three medals in swimming, including two gold -- Cameron van der Burgh in the men’s 100 breaststroke and Chad Le Clos in the 200 butterfly.

“It was definitely our best Olympics,’’ Rousseau said. “It was special sharing it with those guys.”

The big story for the South African team and one of the biggest in the 2012 Games was Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to run in the Olympics. Known as the ‘Blade Runner,’ Pistorius went on trial for murder last week in the death of his girlfriend in February 2013.

The trial is making international headlines daily and Rousseau expects it to still be going on when he returns home soon, a South African version of the O.J. Simpson murder trial that played out in America in the mid-1990s.

“It will be pretty long and drawn out,’’ he said. “It’s huge news and it’s a very sad story. I have met him a couple of times. It’s pretty sad. I’ll be watching and see what happens.”

If distraught over the thought of his college career coming to an end, Rousseau isn’t showing it. He is training as rigorously as ever with his eye zoomed in toward the finish.

The NCAAs is a final chance to shine and leave a mark others can aspire to the way Lochte, Dwyer and those before him did.

“You could see the different things that people were doing to get where they wanted to be,’’ Rousseau said when asked the most important lesson he has learned in the pool at UF. “You can tell what you have to do. That was the biggest thing, learning what you had to sacrifice to get what you wanted.”

And Rousseau wants more.

 

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