Maxime Rooney‘s performance at the 2019 US National Summer Championships felt like the fulfillment of his potential.
The meet, which came shortly after he announced that he would transfer from Florida to Texas for his senior season, saw him finish 2nd in the 100 free in 47.61 and win the 100 fly in 50.68. Those times currently rank him as the 24th-fastest and 13th-fastest times in those events, respectively, all-time.
In high school, Rooney swam 1:33.70 at the 2016 North Coast Section Swimming & Diving Championships. That swim broke Tom Shields’ National High School Record in the event and set Rooney up for a lot of expectations as he prepared for his NCAA career at Florida.
After winning just one individual All-America award in his first two seasons at Florida, via a 6th-place finish in the 200 free as a freshman, his junior year for the Gators was his breakout, albeit not in the race for which he was best known. Rooney swam 44.99 in the 100 fly at the 2019 NCAA Championships to finish 4th, and it looked like he was finally getting over the hump collegiately.
That momentum carried big-time into the summer. While the U.S. had already chosen their World Championship team for the year, Rooney went to the summer-ending Phillips 66 Summer National Championships and marked a statement swim in prelims of the 100 fly of 50.68.
He was over 51 seconds in final, but easily beat a field that included name-swimmers like Jack Conger and Jack Saunderson and Ryan Held. Even without going to World Championships, he ended that season ranked #2 in the world behind only Caeleb Dressel’s World Record.
That put Rooney into prime position heading into his senior season of collegiate swimming and what was supposed to be an Olympic year. He was well-ahead of the rest of the American field and had a beat on not only a spot at the Olympics, but a spot on the Olympic podium in his sights.
Prior to that, he was 2nd, only to Ryan Held’s career-best swim of 47.39, in the 100 free. Rooney swam a 47.61 for 2nd place which ranked him 5th in the world. The U.S. had five of the top eight swims in the world that season, and six of the top ten if we count Tate Jackson (47.88) from the same Nationals meet.
His senior season at Texas was going well, including a 44.83 mid-season 100 fly at the Minnesota Invitational that will wind up being his career best. But as we all know by now, COVID hit. His last NCAA Championship meet was a bust, and the Olympic Trials were pushed off a year, and Rooney, like most swimmers, was left to find a path forward that wasn’t quite to plan.
While Texas wasn’t hit too hard by lockdowns, coming out of the pandemic he looked okay, going 53.99 at the first 2021 Pro Swim in January and 52.71 later in March.
But he never was able really have that burst again that he showed at the 2019 National Championships. At the Olympic Trials, he made the semi-finals of both the 100 free (11th – 48.86) and 100 fly (12th – 52.64), but he didn’t approach those magical 2019 times.
He hovered around similar times throughout the 2021-2022 season, and settled with good times (48.75 in the 100 free prelims, 52.00 in the 100 fly prelims) at the US Trials, with a 3rd-place finish in the 50 fly as his best result (though only the winner gets selected in that event).
While he certainly wasn’t bad coming out of the pandemic, he never lifted to the same peak that he did in 2019.
And that was a big part of the story of Rooney’s results in his decorated career. He rose to really high peaks, but never summited the mountain that he showed he was capable of.
It would be hard to describe Rooney as “the best swimmer to never make a US Olympic Team,” because there are other candidates for that position who sustained the edge of long course glory for longer, but he might be the best swimmer to never make a US open-age international team.
Rooney raced at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in 2016 and the World University Games team in 2017, but never qualified for an open team – in short course or long course.
Based on his peaks, I don’t think there are any American men of the last 15 years who have left fans longing for his international long course potential quite as much as Rooney.
Retiring just past his 24th birthday, Rooney was at an age where maybe his best times, and maybe his first senior US team, were still ahead of him. Even leaving the sport at such a young age, he left a big impact on the history books of swimming.
Dressel, Phelps, Rooney, Crocker, Conger
While the medals of Dressel, Phelps, and Crocker put them at the top of many very short lists, in one specific category, Rooney is toe-to-toe.
Among Americans who were elite in both the 100 fly and 100 free, Rooney stands behind only Dressel and Phelps.
43 American swimmers in history have best times in the 100 fly + 100 free of under 102 seconds (reference: something better than a 53-second 100 fly and 49-second 100 free). Rooney ranks 3rd all-time among those swimmers.
Internationally, only two others have a faster combined result in those races than Rooney. One is Hungarian Kristof Milak, who has been 49.68 in the 100 fly and 48.00 in the 100 free, which ranks him behind only Dressel and Phelps. Milorad Cavic had bests of 48.15 in the 100 free and 49.95 in the 100 fly, which aggregate to 98.10.
While those two both have 49-second 100 meter butterflies to their name, neither (yet) has a 47-second 100 fly on their register.
Fastest Swimmers Globally, 100 Fly + 100 Free
- Caeleb Dressel – 49.45 + 46.96 = 96.41
- Michael Phelps – 49.82 + 47.51 = 97.33
- Kristof Milak – 48.00 + 49.68 = 97.68
- Milorad Cavic – 48.15 + 49.95 = 98.10
- Maxime Rooney – 50.68 + 47.61 = 98.29
All Americans sub-102, 100 fly + 100 free