It's a long way from Stafford County to Stanford University, but swimmer Jeff Rouse of Stafford is planning to make the trip. On his back.

And, although places like Florida or California come to mind before Stafford when considering swimming hotbeds, Rouse is currently the top-ranked 17-18 year-old backstroker in America and is hoping his efforts will take him from his small Virginia hometown to the California university and beyond. Perhaps even to Seoul, South Korea for the Olympics this summer.

Having already qualified for the Olympic Trials in August, Rouse is one step closer to his dream of Olympic gold. Ironically the trials will be at the University of Texas, one school Rouse rejected upon deciding to attend three-time defending NCAA swimming champion Stanford on a full scholarship, pending his acceptance in April.

Rouse was ranked 18th in the world in the 100-meter backstroke for 1986 (the 1987 rankings are not yet available) and has been named Virginia Swimmer of the Year by the Coaches Association in 1986 and 1987. Aside from his backstroke success, he also has state records in the individual medley and butterfly events. He was Rookie of the Meet at the 1986 Senior Nationals and at last year's Senior National at Boca Raton, Florida Rouse took second in both the 100 and 200-meter backstroke.

And, he is enjoying every minute of his success.

"I just love it. I love swimming," said the 18-year old Rouse. "You always dread going to practice but once I'm there, I love it. I love being in the water and I love to work hard."

In a schedule that includes two hours of swimming each night and four mornings a week in which he awakes at four a.m. to swim and lift weights for a couple of hours before school, plus a full calender of competition, 'working hard' is an understatement.

Along with a resume of swimming accomplishments that include national records for his age group in the 100-yard backstroke (49.50 seconds), the 200-yard backstroke (1:46.70) and the 100 and 200-meter backstroke (57.40 and 2:05.5, respectively), Rouse is an honor student at Stafford High School and was selected an academic all-America by the United States Swimming association. Though he rarely has time for anything but swimming and school work, Rouse isn't complaining.

"Some people would say it interferes {with the rest of my life}, but I can still go out on Friday and Saturday nights," said Rouse. "And there are so many positive aspects. I've got friends all over the nation and the world, that I've met through swimming."

As a member of the United States National team, Rouse toured Europe last winter. Through Paris, East Berlin and Bonn, West Germany, Rouse picked up friends, as well as, swimming memories. His list of pen-pals include East Germans Cornelia Sirch, a former world record-holder in the backstroke, and Silke Horner, the current holder of the breast stroke mark.

"I didn't swim that well but it was a good trip in that I got to meet a lot of swimmers and foreign athletes. It was a good experience," Rouse said.

Rouse was born in Petersburg, Virginia and moved with his family to Stafford as an infant. With no one in his family interested in swimming, it would seem fate deals in real estate.

"We moved one house down from Ferry Farms Pool and having the pool right there, I would just go over there every day and hang out."

At five, he began swimming for Ferry Farms in the Rappahannock Swim League and four years later he became a member of the Quantico Devil Dolphins, a much more competition-oriented swimming program.

In his first year with the Devil Dolphins he came within two-hundredths of a second from the national record in the individual medley and "that's when I first realized I had some potential."

With no team at Stafford High School, where the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Rouse is now a senior, he continued to swim and excel at Quantico, breaking national backstroke records in every age group beginning from age 12. He hopes to break the 17-18 year mark this spring.

"He has shown a lot of improvement in every stroke," says Quantico coach Don Regenbogen, Rouse's coach since 1983. "But he's always stood out in the backstroke."

The Devil Dolphins have had several nationally competitive swimmers in the past, including Bill Ripol, who is currently swimming for the University of Virginia. But Rouse has become the Devil Dolphins latest sensation and may be the best yet.

"He's very competitive in his racing but he is also the perfect kind of athlete," Regenbogen said. "He's a tremendous worker and understands what you want him to do and he is able to ask questions that will help him. He deals perfectly with defeat or when he doesn't achieve a specific goal, and he comes back to work hard towards the goals he's set."

After visiting Texas, UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, and receiving full scholarship offers from Tennessee and Virginia, Rouse settled on Stanford.

"I had to look at all the positive and negative aspects of each school," says Rouse, the Virginia Swimmer of the Year for both 1986 and 1987 by the Coaches Association. "It was a tough decision but Stanford seemed to come out on top in every way except being so far from home.

"The swimming program speaks for itself. The academics speak for themselves. And when I was out there I liked the guys on the team. They swim together, they eat together -- it's like one big family."

The Stanford "family" is currently the three-time defending NCAA champion and Cardinals' coach, Skip Kenney, thinks Rouse will only help Stanford maintain its current level of success.

"He is the best backstroker in high school today without a doubt," said Kenney. "And there's alot of space between first and second. He was the key to our recruiting success this year because he can do so many things. He's going to help us in the freestyle and the relays. I tell you, I was a happy camper when he told me he was choosing us."

In the meantime, Rouse labors in relative anonymity in a high school where there is no swimming program and little interest in his exploits. He is quick to point out that the faculty and administration have been very supportive and allow him to miss school when his schedule forces him to travel to California or Florida "as long as I keep my grades up," says Rouse."Swimming has given me so much. It has given me the greatest confidence I could have. I know I can do anything I want to do."

-- Jeff Rouse

That hasn't been a problem as he gets his assignments before he leaves and does the work while he's away, maintaining his 3.6 grade point average and membership in the National Honor Society.

The current lack of attention doesn't bother Rouse as he is more interested in the impact he'll have in the future. He hopes to improve in all his strokes and looks to the Olympics as the ultimate chance to culminate his swimming career.

"I don't want to be known as just a backstroker. I want to have depth," says Rouse. "Why not go to the Olympics and win as many gold medals as I can?"

Kenney likes his recruit's chances. "I don't want to put pressure on him, he's only in high school. But he's an Olympic hopeful. He has a chance to be the best backstroker in the United States."

With the Olympic Trials pending and four years of collegiate swimming before another Olympic year, Rouse feels fate has delivered him another advantage.

"I'm really lucky as far as age goes. I don't plan on swimming after my senior year in college, Rouse said. "I've been swimming since I was five. My life has been filled with swimming and I don't say that negatively -- but it will be time to move on.

"If I go to the 1992 Olympics and come out with two gold medals and two world records, I don't see any reason to go on."

And if it doesn't work out the way he hopes?

"Swimming has given me so much," says Rouse. "It has given me the greatest confidence I could have. I know I can do anything I want to do. Anything within a realistic reach I can accomplish."