By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, May 9, 2019
While his life today revolves around the sports activities of his four daughters, there was a time when Roque Santos chose to see little beyond his own.
Like his peers, it took that level of focus and concentration for him to reach the pinnacle of swimming as a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.
But now, he’s happy to run Shaila, Shelby, Siena and Skyeler to volleyball, basketball, soccer and – oh, yes, swimming – practice so he can watch them enjoy athletics the same way he did.
“I love supporting them in whatever they want to do,” he said. “Of course, I wanted all my kids to be swimmers, but one loves volleyball and another loves basketball, and my youngest really enjoys soccer, so those have become their focus. Still, all of the girls know how to swim and all of them swim at some level -- and my oldest swims year-round.”
Coming from a supportive family of swimmers himself – the fifth of six children – it’s only natural that Santos wants to do the same for his family.
As a 12-year-old, he watched his older brother David, a walk-on at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1970s, finish fifth in the 400 individual medley at 1980 Olympic Trials.
That experience provided all the motivation he needed to want to do the same thing in the not-so-distance future.
“It was so cool to be that age and being on deck at Trials and meeting Tracy Caulkins, who I really admired,” he said. “That proved to be a defining time for me as I worked my way into shape to be a future Olympian.”
A summer swimmer most of his teenage years so he could also play football in the fall and basketball in the winter, Santos realized his future was swimming and followed in his brother’s footsteps to also walk-on at Cal in 1986.
Over the next 18-plus months, Santos dropped enough time to qualify for 1988 Olympic Trials and swam against Mike Barrowman when Barrowman broke the American record in the 200 breaststroke to make the Olympic Team.
After graduating from Cal, Santos moved to Washington, D.C. to train with Barrowman, and Spanish Olympian Sergio Lopez under the guidance of Hungarian coach Jozsef Nagy.
In just over 12 months, Santos dropped considerable time by changing his stroke and kick from flat to Hungarian style with Nagy’s help.
But that was just a small part of what eventually made Santos one of the top breaststrokers in the world in the late 1980s and early 90s.
He went on to make two finals at 1991 Nationals and knew he was on the right track to placing his name alongside the best in the country and world.
“When you swim against guys like Barrowman and Lopez every day you become faster or you get left behind; it’s some real motivation to push yourself like you’ve never pushed yourself before,” he said. “Eventually, I beat them in practice, and that was a huge boost to my confidence.
“It was a very tough time working with Jozsef, but it made a tremendous difference. Every practice was about pushing your body to go as fast as you can – and just when you’re exhausted and think you can’t swim another stroke – you do it one more time. It was about finding that extra lap in practice and getting to the pain level and then pushing through it mentally and physically.”
That time made so much of a difference that at Olympic Trials in 1992, Santos beat the field – including Barrowman, the reigning world record-holder, for the first time – to earn a spot on the team.
And while he ended up not swimming at the same level in Barcelona (he just missed making the event finals and Barrowman dropped 3 seconds from his Trials’ time to win gold and set a new world mark), Santos said nothing can take away what he accomplished to make it there.
“In 1990, I was about 10 seconds back from Barrowman and by working hard and listening to Jozsef – no matter how much training hurt or how much I sometimes may have wanted to stop – I was able to catch him and beat him at Trials; that said a lot to me,” said Santos, who remains involved with swimming as the sales manager with Lincoln Aquatics, which sells pool supplies.
“Regardless of how I swam (in Barcelona), it was great to represent my country at the Olympics. It was surreal to wake up each morning in the Olympic Village and know that every person there was the best in the world in their events.”
After beating Barrowman at Trials (which were in March that year) but before the Olympics, Santos said he discovered newfound notoriety – being featured in USA Today and Sports Illustrated because he beat the world record-holder.
He said he knew it would be very difficult (but not impossible) to duplicate that result at the Olympics, but he would have been ecstatic with a 1-2-3 finish of Barrowman, Lopez and himself (in any order) at the Olympics.
But in the prelims of the 200 breast, he changed his race strategy – going faster in the third 50 rather than the fourth, which he usually did – and that proved to be his downfall.
“I felt in order to medal, I needed to do that, but I ended up ninth, just behind Sergio,” said Santos, who was also a member of the 1991 Pan Pacific Championship team. “I was ninth by 3/100ths of a second, and at that time, the B final swam after the A final, so I had to watch the race I always wanted to be in my whole life before I swam. That was hard to watch.
“I really feel like I did everything I could during that morning prelim and it happened as it was supposed to happen. My place on the mountain was short-lived, but it was pretty good.”
Santos swam for a few more years before retiring in 1995. At the time, few swimmers swam beyond college, and he had made it for several after that before deciding it was time to move on with his life.
Funny enough, the swims in his event in Barcelona were so fast that his prelim time would have qualified him second at the Atlanta Olympics – so he knew he gave it his all against one of the fastest, deepest fields at the Olympics.
“That has always made me happy because it told me that I was really fast – I just happened to compete against some of the fastest ever in the event,” he said. “Several years after Atlanta, I saw Jozsef and he told me if I had kept training with him, I would have won the gold medal in 1996. But it was a different time in swimming. It was hard to make a living and swim. It’s much different today.”
And while his kids are involved with swimming and his wife, Debbie, coaches a Master’s program in their California hometown, Santos said he doesn’t find much time to make it to the pool.
But once things slow down with the kids, he said he would like to get back in the water and possibly do some Master’s swimming because he still loves the sport and gained so much from it over his career.
“Swimming taught me that if you want something, you have to work for it to get to a higher stage,” he said. You don’t get immediate results without putting in the work.
“Kids today need to realize and understand that. I love it when my children get beat and they are sad because it tells me how much they want it. I remind them that it’s not the result today that matters most – it’s what you’re going to do next. That’s hard to accept, but when you reach that final goal, it’s really sweet.”