You could say Zane Grothe is a professional distance swimmer. You could also say he is an aspiring rocket scientist. Pursuing both the Olympics and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering—the hardest that it gets for sport and science—Grothe is innately pulled to what others think is hard. While most would back down from such a high risk, audacious goal, Grothe steps onto the block to meet challenge with an unexpected response.
Watch below as Zane describes the pursuit of both of these equally impressive goals:
From the age of six, Grothe knew he liked doing the hard stuff. Lining up for the 25m butterfly at one of his first swim meets, he overheard two other swimmers complain how hard it was and interrupted them, declaring “well, I love butterfly.” That wasn’t exactly the truth, it wasn’t his favourite stroke, but he went on to race and almost beat the team record. Being successful at something difficult cemented Grothe’s mindset toward challenges. Even when he grew up and started to think about college, Grothe says he thought about “how it would be to have the tag ‘professional athlete, rocket scientist’,” even though he knew how difficult it would be. Just like that 25m fly race, he figured if he did the work no one else dared to do, he could be successful.
Of course, there is a reason why most don’t target both the Olympics and being a rocket scientist. For Grothe, balancing both swimming and science has meant a lack of consistency in the pool. More than most, Grothe has had ups and downs in his performance, almost retiring after finishing his college career in 2014. “It hasn’t always been easy,” Grothe admits but in the face of defeat, Grothe applies the scientific method he knows so well: asking questions, observing the data, analysing how he can make changes, and then following through with the work—a case of losing a battle and using that to win the war.
Grothe may be drawn to what others think is hard but it’s his curiosity, the “what if” and “how could I,” that drives him to do the work in both science and swimming. After almost retiring, Grothe went on to win his first national title in 2015, medaling at the FINA World Championships in 2016 and 2017, set American records and medaled at the Pan Pacific Championships in 2018, and has since solidified himself as one of the top-tier American distance swimmers.
Grothe’s almost retirement would probably make most athletes double down on sport or quit altogether but, for Grothe, it also cemented his determination to continue his academics. "A lot of athletes aren’t prepared for the end [of their swimming career],” he says, “and when it almost ended for me, I wasn’t prepared.” Along with changing his coach and swim programme, Grothe embarked on his master’s degree, positioning himself to enter the workforce after Paris 2024 as a bonafide rocket scientist.
Grothe hasn’t had the most typical career path for a swimmer, nor does he have a typical future ahead of him as a rocket scientist. But what sets him apart is that same audacity he had as a six year old winning the 25m butterfly: a boldness to meet challenge with hard work, questioning not if but figuring out how.
Simply put, Grothe is proof that success comes down to hard work and that isn’t rocket science—and he would know.