Jeff Rouse missed the race against time that swimming provided the most, and he looked everywhere to replace it.

How many houses could he sell? He found a real estate job in his home town of Fredericksburg and quickly became a top seller, only to quit unfulfilled a few years later.

How fast could he drop his golf handicap? Cut a stroke off each week, he told himself, and you'll feel that familiar, athletic satisfaction. But the game bored him, even when he achieved his goal.

How quickly could he build a normal life? Move home, get a job, buy a house, join a racquetball league, get married, then divorced -- all within four years.

"I was still racing, racing in everything," Rouse said. "I looked a lot of places for that concrete satisfaction that swimming fast always gave me, but I couldn't find it anywhere.

"Except back in the water."

That's why Rouse, an Olympic medalist in 1992 and '96, will swim his first meet of any consequence in eight years Thursday in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif. If he places first or second in the finals Friday night, Rouse, 34, will be the oldest male swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympics. But age is not what makes this comeback unique.

Considered by many the greatest backstroker of all-time, Rouse swam about 15 times in the first six years of his retirement. He started to swim regularly again in 2001 because he wanted to lose weight, and it was then that he asked himself a fateful question: "How quickly can I get back in swimming shape?"

"He found that concrete goal again," said Jack Rouse, Jeff's father. "He was kind of wandering for a while without swimming, and getting back in the water gave him a challenge."

Funny, because Rouse left the water after the 1996 Olympics because it provided no challenge for him. He'd conquered the backstroke so thoroughly -- eight consecutive years ranked No. 1, two Olympic gold medals, two world records -- that the sport seemed effortless and undemanding.

Rouse would have quit after the 1992 Olympics, but he lost to Canada's Mark Tewksbury in the 100 backstroke and had to settle for the silver medal. He came back to win gold in that event -- and in the 4x100 medley relay -- in 1996.

"At that point, he was just so dominant," said Don Regenbogen, Rouse's coach at the time. "Nobody could really compete with him. He walked away at the prime of his career."

And he left, it seemed, without regrets. During the first few years of his retirement, Rouse swam two or three times. Family members begged him to rediscover the water. It isn't healthy, they told him, to block off such a big part of yourself.

They tried everything to get him into a pool, including asking him to help a young cousin learn to swim. When that didn't work, they became more straight forward. "Swim again," his dad once told him, "and you'll relieve some stress. You might be happier."

"That part of my life is over," Rouse said. "I'm doing different things now."

Only dieting drove him back to swimming. He looked in the mirror in the summer of 2001 and saw that his once-muscular 6-foot-4 frame appeared flabby. He'd put on 30 pounds since retirement, most of it fat, and he desperately wanted to get back in shape.

"I looked like a couch potato, not an athlete," Rouse said. "That's what it took to get me back in the water."

It took even more for him to leave it. He started swimming twice a week, but within two months he swam nearly every day. Six months after getting back in the water, he started working out daily with the Stingrays, a competitive area team.

He grew addicted to cutting his 100-meter time. He'd defied time before -- during his prime, he became the first swimmer to break 54 seconds -- so why not once more, even at 34?

"It seemed crazy, to be honest," said Stingrays Coach Bob Herlinger. "He wasn't very good. He didn't look like Jeff Rouse, that's for sure. But he really became obsessed with getting better."

He worked with Herlinger before every practice, became the Stingrays' best swimmer and told his parents he planned to make a run at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He moved to California to work out with his old Stanford team and swam a 55.57, good enough to make him eligible for the trials.

Finally, he'd found his concrete goal, his race against time.

"I missed the constant challenge of getting faster," Rouse said. "I missed specific goals. In life, you kind of have all these things you want to accomplish, like owning a house or something, but there's really no time frame for it.

"I like to have a sense of time. I need that urgency."

No wonder, then, that he feels so blissfully happy this week. The trials have given Rouse a goal that's undeniably specific: He must finish first or second to continue his comeback.

The odds of that are slim. Realistically, Rouse could finish in the top five, but probably not much higher. His leg-kick lacks the power it once had, and he struggles in the final 20 meters of a race.

Whatever happens, Rouse swears he'll stop swimming again after this year. That's why the man so obsessed with racing time finds himself hoping his next race drags on forever.

"I really don't want the whole thing to end," Rouse said. "I could swim badly and the comeback journey would still be worth it. I don't need a gold medal. I already have that. I just needed the swimming goals again. That's the thing I'm really going to miss."

One of the sport's great backstrokers, Jeff Rouse, 34, is trying to become the oldest male swimmer to qualify for Olympics. Jeff Rouse wins the gold in 4x100 medley relay at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "I missed the constant challenge of getting faster."