Matt McLean’s height serves him well in the pool, where he’s a top U.S. freestyler in the 200- and 400-meter.
But it’s a tall order for the 6-foot-6 McLean to fold himself into the sleek, powerful cars he admires and loves to drive.
“The seat is usually all the way back,” said McLean. “That’s one thing that can be a real deal-breaker unfortunately, but I guess it’s not that bad of a trade-off when you think of it.”
High performance in the water and behind the wheel are both important to McLean.
The self-described “car aficionado” who hopes to someday drag race will swim the 200-meter freestyle Thursday at the Pan Pacific Championships.
The meet in Gold Coast, Australia, pits the United States against other swimming powerhouses including Australia and Japan.
McLean, 26, won the U.S. title in the 200 free earlier this month at the Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California, and placed second in the 400 free for the second year in a row. The 400 will be contested Saturday.
He’s also entered in the 100 free Friday and the 800 free Sunday and hopes to be selected for a relay or two.
McLean trains with one of the highest-octane swimming clubs in the world, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. His teammates include Michael Phelps, Conor Dwyer, Chase Kalisz and Yannick Agnel, the Olympic gold medalist from France in the 200-meter freestyle.
“Every day there’s going to be someone that’s on top and every day everyone’s going to be laying it on the line because we all have some pretty serious goals,” McLean said.
For the Sterling, Virginia, native, all roads lead to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. McLean won a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games as a member of the 800-meter relay team, swimming a leg in the preliminary session. The following year, he qualified for the 2013 World Championships in an individual event, placing 13th in the 400 freestyle. McLean then swam a preliminary leg on the gold medal-winning 800-meter relay.
“He likes to work hard,” said his coach, Bob Bowman. “He can definitely get a lot faster. He’s got good scope – he swims big. He’s a big guy.”
McLean said he got to know Bowman and some of the other swimmers at a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It was a really good environment,” McLean said, “so when it came time for several of us to make a move, we just happened to flow that way.”
With Phelps launching his comeback after a short retirement, the group had a natural leader.
“He’s very willing to share both his knowledge and wisdom with us on a daily basis,” McLean said. “He’ll offer his insight and do whatever he can to help us, so I think that we’re very fortunate to be in a situation like that.”
But McLean has never driven any of Phelps’ cars, which have included Range Rovers, Cadillac Escalades and a Porsche Panamera.
“I would never ask,” McLean said, “because if I had any of those, I would never want someone to ask me.”
McLean, who drives a 2009 BMW E-82 135i with the M package, has an appreciation for everything from American muscle cars to the finest European engineering.
“I can talk all cars all day,” he said.
Here are five of McLean’s favorites:
1) Nissan GT-R: “Supercar performance, amazing looks and available tuner market.”
2) Porsche 911 GT2: “Track ready from the factory.”
3) McLaren F1: “The driver’s seat is in the midde — how cool is that?”
4) Maserati MC12: “Also known as the Enzorati due to the parts it shares with the Enzo.”
5) Hennessey Venom 1000 Twin Turbo Viper: “1,000 horsepower of American muscle.”
McLean got into cars while attending Potomac Falls High School. “I just fell in love with anything loud and fast,” he said.
McLean hung out at a shop specializing in “Fox Body” Mustangs, especially those from 1987-93 that were “putting down close to 1400 horsepower.”
At home, he worked on a used short block engine. It was “a pretty serious set-up,” he said. McLean wanted to eventually put it into a Fox Body Mustang, but couldn’t afford it through “mowing lawns and working at a Mexican restaurant.”
Meanwhile, he was driving a 1996 Mustang Cobra. McLean managed without a car at the University of Virginia, where he was the NCAA champion at 500 yards his senior year.
After graduation, McLean headed to California to train with coach Jon Urbanchek and the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST). He decided the best ride would be a used Stage 3 Roush Mustang.
“The car was stupid fast,” McLean said. “It was nice to have in California. You don’t get a lot of rain and Mustangs are not good in the rain.”
Moving back to Virginia following the London Games, he bought an Audi S4, a better four-season car that was “a blast to drive,” McLean said. A company called AWE helped him tune it exactly how he wanted it.
“I always have to have something to tinker with on my cars,” McLean said. “I can never just leave one be.”
“He likes to know how things work and I think that’s why he likes cars,” Bowman said. “He really appreciates how they’re put together.”
But the Audi was too low to withstand bad roads around Baltimore – “There are literally roads I couldn’t drive on because the car would get stuck,” McLean said — so he got the BMW.
He’s as careful with the bodywork on his cars as he is in taking care of his body. When McLean needs groceries, he tries not to park near any other cars.
“I’m that guy, yeah,” he said. “I always park so far away.”
That’s a problem when McLean’s tapering and not supposed to exert himself. “So when we’re on taper, I have to try and get to the grocery store really early so I can park close before everyone’s there,” he said.
McLean’s dream car is the Nissan GT-R. When he eventually gets one, he plans to add a roll cage and finally experience drag racing from the inside.
“I love the drag strip,” McLean said. “There’s something about the quarter mile.”
He goes the same distance in the pool now, but much slower. And while he likes being around loud cars, swimming is quiet.
“You definitely have a lot of time alone with your thoughts,” McLean said. “I think you have to be very self-reliant. You have to be able to be mentally tough in swimming just because the scenery doesn’t really change that much and you have to be very connected with your body.”
McLean wouldn’t call either the 400 or the 200 his better event. “Sometimes it’s tough to get going in the 200 and sometimes it’s tough to hold it together for a 400. It depends on the meet.”
The 2012 Olympic Trials did not turn out as he imagined it would.
McLean said when people ask him to reflect on his 2012 Olympic experience, “They’re really taken aback when I tell them that the thing that I’m most proud of isn’t anything that occurred in London, but it’s that I actually made the team,” he said.
Although he was defending national champion in the 400, McLean was off his form in the morning preliminaries and ranked ninth, failing to make the final.
“That was pretty much the only thing that anyone expected me to make the team in,” he said. “Then 24 hours later, I was able to refocus and be mentally tough enough to actually make the team on the relay in the 200. What I always tell people is that I think that’s really indicative and reflective of what swimming has done for me as a person.
“It’s helped me develop those skills that you need to bounce back from something as disappointing as that.”
He just had to tune his own engine.