By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Rowdy Gaines’ familiar voice will be on the airwaves soon at Olympic Trials, and then in London. The gold-medal Olympian thinks these Trials, and Games, will be among the most exciting ever, and he shares his insights in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You seem pretty wound up – it’s an exciting time for swimming, isn’t it?
Rowdy: It really is. And you know, in our sport, the pinnacle of success – our Super Bowl – is the Olympics. We just get impatient because our Super Bowl only comes around once every four years. So the excitement builds and builds. Regardless of how you think the Olympics are going to play out, or who you are rooting for, it’s the Olympics! For us, it’s this slow excitement that builds for four years, and it culminates in this. As much as we care about swimming, nobody else really cares – well a lot, of course, but not as much as we do the whole time – but everyone cares about the Olympics
2. How big are these Olympic Trials?
Rowdy: Let’s put it this way: I’m bringing my children to the Olympic Trials. I’m not going to be able to afford to bring them to England. I will bring them to Olympic Trials so they can tell their children – tell my grandchildren – that they saw Michael Phelps swim. He is the single most important and influential person in our sport, regardless of what you think about him, of whether you like him or not, he has done more for our sport than anyone else, and we have to respect and honor that.
3. Is such a performance by him even possible in 2012?
Rowdy: I think that perfect storm would be impossible to ever happen – I just don’t think it will ever happen again. How do you figure Jason (Lezak) goes 49 flat? That being said, how does anyone ever better Michael and his 14 gold medals? Nobody can beat him when he is at his best, and that includes Ryan (Lochte). I don’t know if Michael is going to be at his best – nobody does – but I do know he’s going to win a lot of medals in London, and it’s something we should appreciate it. You know…maybe we should be pulling for Lochte to win eight gold medals, because from the media standpoint, the only Grand Prixs we really cover, or plan TV coverage around, are the ones that Michael was scheduled to be at. My point in mentioning pulling for Ryan is that we showed all the swimmers because of Michael – all swimmers benefitted from the attention he received. So selfishly, to keep media interest in the sport, maybe we should pull for Ryan to win eight. Because even if Michael did win eight again, he is leaving the sport, and realistically, we want someone to carry on the tradition and keep attention on the sport. But who knows, maybe Missy Franklin wins seven medals.
4. Speaking of Missy, how excited are you to see how she swims at Trials and in London?
Rowdy: Very excited. Very, very excited. This is somebody that comes along once in a lifetime, at most. It is so rare that an athlete like that comes along. It’s once in a generation, and I define generation as 20 to 30 years. She has it all. I don’t know if I have ever seen an athlete put together so smoothly at this point in her career. She’s obviously incredibly gifted, physically as well, but also very humble, eloquent, hungry and focused. She has the physical stature, and she’s incredibly versatile. She has everything. I’m not sure if a female athlete has ever had what she has right now. (Several) come to mind, but I don’t think even Natalie at age 17 had this. Natalie had the promise of this, but I just don’t think she was at the same level Missy is at right now. Missy just has so much incredible potential. And she’s just relishing this role, as she should, as being this new diva of swimming. She’s such a good person – that’s why I talk about her humility. She just says all the right things, and has this incredible respect for the sport, and her parents are so awesome. It’s a great combination for success and swimming, and I hope the best for her.
5. I am so glad to see Katie Hoff back and happy. You are rooting for her as well, aren’t you?
Rowdy: Absolutely, and I am one that really owes her an apology because I was probably one of those who said she probably had a disappointing Olympics. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but she had a great Olympics – anyone would kill to have an Olympics like that. Based on the expectations going in, that might be why some thought it was a disappointment. But it was so unfair to even compare her to Michael Phelps. I still think she came out of it very well. She’s going to be very proud of her career. I hope the best for her; she’s always been a good representative for USA Swimming, and she’s always been there with class. Anything USA Swimming asks of her, she’s glad to do it. She falls into the class of being one of the more incredible swimmers of this era.
6. Likewise it is great to see Kate Ziegler back, isn’t it?
Rowdy: Absolutely. Kate is another one of those who is just so easy to cheer for because she’s such a good person. I don’t know all the girls who have the potential for this team, but this women’s team is shaping up to be something really special, because they are all good people to cheer for, and they will pull for each other. That team attitude is so important, and this women’s team has the chance to be one of the all-time great women’s teams in history. A lot of that is because of Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni, and Natalie, and how they are better people even outside the pool than they are in the water, which is really saying a lot. But they are also able to support each other through the peaks and valleys in London, and that strength of character makes a great team even better.
7. Yet for all those names, I can think of maybe 10 other young women who could make the team who no one is talking about – is that right?
Rowdy: Absolutely. And I think the really good thing, with the exception of Missy a little bit, is that they are all coming in flying under the radar, which is better for them. Natalie and Rebecca get their publicity, which is deserved, but no one is even talking about Elizabeth Beisel, and she’s a world champion! But I think that’s good to fly under radar; let Michael and Ryan put it all on their shoulders and it will be beneficial in the long run to everyone else, with less distractions and pressure.
8. Speaking of that, I wish Natalie would have got more attention for winning six medals in Beijing, but the focus was entirely on Michael, and well deserved – but isn’t Natalie one for the ages as well?
Rowdy: Time will be able to tell so much more about this amazing career. Her history will come back in 20 years, and people will be like, “Holy cow, Natalie Coughlin did this?” It really does go underappreciated because of Michael. But it shouldn’t bother us because it doesn’t bother Natalie. From what she’s done, she’s one of the all-time greats of the sport.
9. Isn’t Rebecca Soni’s greatness worthy of its place in history, especially if she defends it again in London?
Rowdy: Yep, no doubt, Rebecca, if she does what she’s capable of and expected to do this summer, you can definitely say she’s the greatest female breaststroker in history, that’s for sure. That’s so hard to do year in and out, to go over and over again and win it, even with that target on your back; being the hunted is so much harder than being the hunter. She has definitely been hunted for four straight years. It’s such a hard level of brilliance to maintain for four straight years.
10. We talked about the men’s relays from Beijing, and how unlikely it has to be, at least in terms of probability, of the U.S. men winning all three again – but if the U.S. women do better in 2012 in the relays than they did in 2008, that will also indicate a return to dominance, right?
Rowdy: I always judge a country’s “state of swimming” at the Olympics by how they do on the relays. You look at the number 1, 2 and 3 countries, and then you look at how they did on the relays, and that’s why they are ranked where they are. Hey, the U.S. men are going to have to suck it up, because the rest of the world is going fast. But for some reason, the USA has always been able to step it up on the relay. Yes, they have been upset at times, but that should not surprise us – yet the level of success is unprecedented. Come on, think about it, no one is even close to the USA men on relays – they’ve not lost a medley, lost the 400 free a couple of times, and have dominated the 800 free relay, and it is just amazing to see that. If they win a gold, silver and bronze, that says a lot. I don’t think that’s going to happen: I think they are going to win at least two of them, but they’ll be right there in the third as well.
11. Will Phelps or Lochte have a near-record haul of medals, or is that realistic to expect, or even to hope for?
Rowdy: Oh, I definitely thinks it’s realistic and it’s going to happen. If you are going to (laughs) push me over a cliff and ask, I think each one is going to win at least five or six medals. And the same with Missy, and same with Natalie, they are all going to be up there winning multiple medals. These are the years of the “individual Olympics” and the amount of medals several individuals have been taking home each time is something we’ll always remember.
12. How do you prep so well for your broadcasts – you seem to have more knowledge about more things than I could ever imagine having personally?
Rowdy: I really take the whole Olympic year and completely become a student of the sport beforehand, not that I don’t follow websites and Web site articles from all over the world during the course of the quad, but I really ramp it up during an Olympic year. Every single article, Larry Herr from USA Swimming has a Google Alert for anything on a National Team athlete. For example if something comes up on Liz Pelton, he sends it to me, and it’s the same thing for any other major athlete. I also have Mike Unger, who is a tremendous resource – did you see the movie Broadcast News? William Hurt reads out things perfectly because Holly Hunter does all the work and is in his ear. Mike’s in that role for me. Mike Unger makes me sound a lot smarter than I am. His work is amazing.
13. How exciting is it for the Olympics to be in London?
Rowdy: It really is exciting. I think London is going to be a great host. I get thrilled about any Olympics, and I would be excited if they were in Timbuctoo. But with them in an English-speaking country, it will really help us with basic logistics and just getting around, plus I think a lot of us consider England our sister country in the world.
14. We will see surprises at Olympic Trials, won’t we?
Rowdy: It does always happen. You could definitely see a Clark Burckle or Liz Pelton knock someone off. Actually, Liz is a bad example because she’s always been there at such a high level, though there is great competition in her events. But someone could come up and knock a star out of one of their signature events – it likely will happen. That’s the nature of the best of Olympic Trials.
15. These are Michael’s fourth Games, Amanda Beard has been around since 1996, Dara has a chance, and of course Natalie since 2004 – this is unprecedented, isn’t it?
Rowdy: Yes, it’s just amazing you think about the longevity of some of these athletes. Jason (Lezak) has been around for a long time too. Just to come back every four years and make their mark is such an incredible thing; I was exhausted (laughs) in my eight-year run – I went from 1976 to ‘84 and I thought I was going to die in 1984!
16. Saw your TV commercial the other day of you swimming, and while I’ll put my head of hair up against yours any day of the week, where does a 53-year-old man get abs like that, and what happened to your body fat or do you just not have any?
Rowdy: I guess running around and worrying so much about my four daughters keeps me in shape! We do have good genes – my Mom and Dad always took care of themselves. And I still love to swim. It’s the only thing I am good at, and I still have passion for the sport. I am also at a good place in my life, and I think that has a lot to do with it. I have a beautiful wife who loves me, takes care of me, and is very patient, and I have a great job at LIMU, the kind you look forward to going to every day – I literally love going to work. Not that I don’t have any stress in my life, but it truly is relatively without stress.
17. Our Trials, some tell me, are more stressful than the Olympics – true?
Rowdy: I am really nervous about it and I am not (laughs) even swimming! That’s what I say about Olympic Trials. You can ask 99 percent of the swimmers, and they will tell you Trials are so much more intense and stressful than the Olympics. That’s one of the reasons our teams do so well at the Olympics, is because they know how hard it was to make the team just three weeks earlier. Making that team takes a lot of stress off and puts them in a good place mentally for the Games. There is still pressure at the Olympics, of course, but once they make the team, they are in a really good place to be ready to compete against the world.
18. Speaking of great careers, how happy are you and impressed with Brendan Hansen’s comeback – we need that man on this team, don’t we?
Rowdy: I think USA Swimming desperately needs Brendan Hansen to be on this team. We don’t have to have him win a medal in the 100 breast, but they need his leadership. He has been such a leader, that person who is completely raw that will get in your face and pump you up to get the job done.
19. I can’t get over Amanda Beard being in the mix – how amazing is that?
Rowdy: I know! She’s one of those swimmers that you admire so much because every Olympics after 1996 you maybe didn’t expect it, and a lot of people write her off. A lot are writing her off to be first or second (at Trials) to make London. I would never pick against her, but it is also a great field again this time.
20. I know you get a bit embarrassed at this point in our talks through the years, but I continue to marvel at how beloved you still are, how people excitedly call out “Rowdy! Rowdy!” when they see you – you are such a great voice and ambassador for this sport and I imagine that means a lot to you, right?
Rowdy: I’m not the most eloquent person, and not the most knowledgeable person. There are a lot of people finished with the sport who know so much more than I do. But no one can deny the passion I have for the sport. When I get in the booth and start talking about it, it’s from the heart – this is the only way I know how to do it. People might claim that some things I say don’t make sense, or that I was wrong in a prediction. But they can’t deny that I love it. I have so much respect for the people in this sport, and I hope every time I open my mouth, people can hear the respect I have for the athletes. I love swimming.