By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Despite earning a spot on the last Olympic and World Championship teams – as well as winning two gold medals – Matt McLean is convinced he still has much to accomplish.
It’s one of the things that continues to drive him in the sport – chasing continued excellence in himself more than times or medals.
“I still have so much more to do to fulfill my goals, but I like to keep them to myself,” McLean said. “Swimming in the Olympics and at Worlds are great accomplishments, don’t get me wrong, but I feel I have more that I want to do to be in the best position for 2016. I’m just as hungry as ever, and having that hunger keeps me going.”
Now two years removed from completing his eligibility and education at the University of Virginia, McLean has moved around a bit to achieve his goals.
Shortly after graduating in May 2011, he relocated to Fullerton, Calif., to work with Jon Urbancheck and the post-graduate swimmers at FAST (Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team). He did that for a year leading up to Olympics, and then moved back to Charlottesville to work with Mark Bernadino before he stepped down earlier this year.
McLean is now in Baltimore training with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) and Bob Bowman and believes the change is just what he needs to motivate him for the next two-plus years leading up to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
He has accepted that being a member of the past and current U.S. National, Olympic and World teams makes you want to be a member of future ones.
“Being a part of the 800 freestyle relays at the Olympics and World Championships was one of the coolest things, and being a part of that tradition will never get old for me,” said McLean, a sociology major at Virginia. “It motivates me to want more.”
While he swam on the relay in London, McLean admits he had a badly executed performance in the 400 freestyle at Trials. He came to Omaha as one of the top contenders but didn’t make it past the semifinals (finished 9th).
At the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer, he finished second in the 400 and earned a spot on the team, but again didn’t swim as well as he hoped and failed to medal.
McLean said those two disappointments taught him valuable lessons about not getting down on himself when things don’t go as he planned in the water.
“In many ways, swimming and athletics are about perseverance. You have to realize you’re going to have a disappointing race from time to time, but you can’t let that define you or stop you,” McLean said. “That was a very important lesson for me, and one I had to learn in a short period of time.
“At Trials, after the 400, I didn’t freak out. I just chalked it up to being a learning experience and threw it in the trash. I’ve learned to put those swims behind me and focus on how I can improve for the next one.”
Now 25, McLean has really only been swimming for 15 years, starting in summer leagues as a 10-year-old, late by some standards.
And while he admits he loved the sport right way, it didn’t exactly love him. He struggled early on, and it wasn’t until a few years later that he started to see his hard work and dedication – something he’s never lacked – pay off.
It wasn’t really until the end of his junior year of high school that he started to believe swimming in college and beyond was feasible. Once he did, he knew what he wanted and worked to make it happen.
“I didn’t excel right away, and I guess that could have made me stop, but I loved swimming so much that I wanted to see what I could do. It motivated me,” McLean said. “It took me a little while to realize that not everyone can get in the water and be a phenom. For some, it takes hard work and patience. It took me a little while to develop and progress.”
McLean admits the financial constraints of being a professional swimmer sometimes make it difficult to live and train free from worry.
And while he acknowledges there are more opportunities today than 15 years ago for professional swimmers, it can still be a financial struggle at times even when you are an Olympic gold medalist.
“I think a lot of people don’t even realize we’re professionals because they don’t hear about or see us enough, although they see us a lot more than in the past,” McLean said. “Every four years, they catch us, but because of sponsorship rules, we can’t cover ourselves in patches and logos and meets like a soccer player can. It makes it challenging."
Still, less than three years away from what he hopes will be his second (and possibly last) Olympic team, McLean said he will continue moving forward with his swimming, working on continuing to refine and improve his technique, reflecting on what’s he accomplished and focusing on his future in and out of the pool.
“From every angle, I want to get better – not just individually but also as a member of our relays,” McLean said. “I have areas for improvement, but there is no greater feeling of pride than walking out on deck wearing the red, white and blue. I get chills just thinking about it now. Being an Olympic and World Champion team member were the highlights of my career so far. I’m excited for more.”