Austrian world-record holder Markus Rogan, who attended Mt. Vernon High, decided to postpone his planned retirement from swimming this summer because he didn’t want to leave the sport shrouded in humiliation.
He remembers the August world championships in Rome not for his performance, but for being curled up in a fetal position on the floor of a beachfront nightclub in the wee hours after finishing the competition, trying to protect himself from a fusillade of kicks and punches that he contends were thrown unjustifiably by belligerent bouncers.
Whether you believe Rogan’s version of the Aug. 2 incident, or the one put out by nightclub officials who claimed he had to be restrained because he brandished a broken bottle and teetered with inebriation, this cannot be disputed: Rogan, a three-time Olympian and Stanford graduate, left Italy profoundly embarrassed.
And that, he said, is precisely why he moved to Irvine, Calif., to join former college teammate Peter Marshall and the rest of the high-powered training team under University of Southern California Coach Dave Salo.
Such a public incident, Rogan said, requires public redemption.
He had to come back to the sport.
“The original plan was to go out quietly, go into private banking,” Rogan, 27, said Wednesday by cell phone. “With what happened in Rome, that really changed everything. It was a huge embarrassment in the swimming world. Especially in Austria, some people really believe I am a drunken, belligerent, fight-seeker. That’s a message I can only disprove by swimming.”
Until August, it had been such a fulfilling year for Rogan, who had spent his high school days in the Washington region training under Jeff King at Curl-Burke Swim Club. After barely failing to medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing — he finished fourth in the 200 backstroke — Rogan took a step back. He got his pilot’s license. He became a financial advisor in Vienna with the bank Raiffeisenbank, a career move that brought fascinating challenges.
“I had to work twice as hard to prove my credibility in banking,” Rogan said. “All of the clients I would get would say, ‘I get that you’re a good swimmer, but why should I trust you with my money?’”
In his free time, Rogan worked out far more casually than he had before. He and a training partner swam three or four times a week and relied on dry-land work to keep things interesting. During one memorable excursion to the ski resort town of Sölden, they combined hours of downhill skiing with hard laps in a thermal, outdoor pool at a resort, surrounded by snow banks.
“It was fantastic,” Rogan said. “It was the perfect way to taper out my swimming career, then go into a full-time job. That was the plan.”
With his enthusiasm on the rise, and his fitness at a respectable level, Rogan decided to make a run at a world championship medal. He finished just 11th in the semifinals of the 100 backstroke, but knew he hadn’t prepared with the necessary intensity. “You can’t spend six hours a day in a bank and expect to be the best in the world.”
After the championships, Rogan said, he and a few teammates went to a high-end club on the beach in Ostia. Rogan said he believes he inflamed a bouncer by dancing with the wrong woman, and he was tossed out. He said he had consumed a couple of glasses of wine.
Because it was an outdoor club, Rogan said, he climbed over a wall to return, at which point he was grabbed, tossed into a room, and beaten up. Rogan contends the bouncers stepped on his feet so they could land shots to his stomach. Even weeks later, Rogan said, he still walks with a limp. The bouncers stole his shoes, he said, so he stumbled out in bare feet and approached a police officer, who declined to intervene but called an ambulance.
A trip to the hospital revealed cuts and bruises, but no broken bones.
“Have you ever been to a men’s restroom?” he said. “Have you ever seen toilet paper soggy on the ground? That’s what my self-worth feels like, being beat up … My number one goal was to just hide in a hole.”
A friend, Rogan said, dragged him out of his slump, urging him to take action against the club (Rogan said he has filed a lawsuit) and get out of Austria. The two traveled to New York and Rogan called Marshall, who invited him to train with Salo’s team. Rogan arrived to California a day later.
He immediately connected, he said, with Salo and a training group that includes Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, and Americans Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy.
“Dave is ridiculously creative,” said Rogan, who intends to see that donations are made to the Austrian-based Ethiopian children’s charity Tesfaye (www.tesfaye.at), for every interview he does. “You can’t get bored with swimming when you are swimming with Dave.”
Rogan, who plans to compete in all of the fall short-course World Cups, beginning with a late October event in Durban, South Africa, has been delighted by how good he has felt in the pool.
“The last week has probably been the best week of training in my life,” said Rogan. “I had been missing the passion and obsessive desire to succeed. Now I feel that again.”
Rogan got additional motivation when his former employer, Raiffeisenbank, announced it would not renew what had been a five-year sponsorship.
“They don’t trust me to do this comeback, is what it comes down to,” Rogan said. “That’s [another] reason I have something to prove.”