By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, January 31, 2017
He is the most recognizable voice in the sport -- maybe in all of sports -- and the kindest smile in it as well. Rowdy Gaines’ love for swimming carries him through. That, and his job in Florida growing the sport. But he was also the greatest in the world at one time, and his legion of fans remember those days just as fondly. But like he’s doing now as a professional, his focus is on looking forward, as he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How much fun was calling the Rio Games with such a historic performance by the U.S.?Rowdy: It really was. I mean, going in I didn’t know for sure what to expect. Even after Trials a lot of people thought this was a team that would underperform, especially based on World Championships the year before. But when we visited the team in Atlanta at Training Camp we thought it would be special -- but how special? We really had no idea -- certainly not as special as they came together to be in Rio. Afterward, this was my favorite Olympics -- as far as the “team” goes.
2. Not your first rodeo, that’s pretty high praise?
Rowdy: Sydney was a personal favorite for me because of the love Australians have for swimming. From a team perspective and the way this team jelled though it just made these Olympics the one I enjoyed the most. This was my 8th one, including my own, and I definitely enjoyed this team the most.
3. Did you see Michael Phelps swimming this well, this determined, in Rio, especially at his age?
Rowdy: Going in, I certainly felt like Michael was going to win a lot of gold medals. Even after Trials I felt like that, I really did. I know in a couple of interviews they put me on the spot and I said four golds, a silver and bronze. I wasn’t too far off (Phelps had 5 golds and won silver in the 100 fly). I just felt like he was going to go out in style.
4. How do you put that into words or make sense of it?
Rowdy: He had done everything that is necessary to put himself in position to go out on top. He can’t control what everyone else was doing. But he controlled what he was doing. When that happens with Michael, when he does everything in his power, he can control his own destiny and no one is going to beat him. And that’s pretty much what happened.
5. And the loss -- is it really right to call a great swim and silver in the 100 a loss? -- to a classy young man like the University of Texas’ Joseph Schooling, by way of Singapore, still produced a great moment, didn’t it?
Rowdy: It did, and what a race. Michael ran into (laughs) a youth problem in the 100 fly but he was pretty much perfect outside of that, and he was pretty great in that race when you look at it.
6. Him lifting himself out of the water in the 200 IM, just leaving no doubt, full-on beast mode, no being denied, is that your best memory of him from these Games?
Rowdy: He certainly did it all in that event -- what a breaststroke leg, too. That and the 800 free relay were something to behold. It was one of the greatest memories he gave us -- and there are so many memories. I was asked this the other night, how do I pick my favorite swim? And that’s hard, because Cody Miller’s individual race, where he won bronze, wasn’t even a gold medal swim and it would be among my favorite races for what he drew deep and pulled from himself for that medal. Kathleen Baker was another one who dug down and pushed herself to one of the most memorable swims of the Games. And that’s not even getting to Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Ryan Murphy, Lilly King or Maya DiRado -- all of whom could in any Games, have been the most memorable and historical athletes of the Games. As far as the moment, in terms of Michael, I’d probably go with the 800 because seeing how he literally left it all in the water and his teammates had to help him out -- that’s what the greatest Olympian of all time does when it counts, he lays it all on the line. It’s been a real honor and privilege to say I’ve pretty much covered every single one of his races - certainly his major races. To see him go out on top, it’s what you’d expect from the greatest, but what he had to ask of himself where he was in his career, well, that makes his legacy even more impressive and inspiration to more generations.
7. I guess having first interviewed him and Bob over the longest lunch in the world in 1998, seeing this Michael Phelps was transformative for me -- no angry young man who seemed to disconnect at times, just this wonderful, truly gold medal soul and spirit, is that right in your mind too?
Rowdy: It is and I loved that he could go out on top and be an elder statesman and show such great leadership. First of all though, a great spouse can do that for you -- and Nicole is all that and more, she truly is. And a baby does that too you. I think when you have a child, and you know this as well as I do, it changes your perspective on life. The grudges and anger fade, replaced by the joy of the new life and what really matters -- that’s where your energy and time are, and that puts you in a better place. Nicole stood with him through a lot of peaks and valleys that he suffered through so to see him pull himself through that -- with her help -- and become this amazing leader showed the values and perspective he learned from all this. You don’t like that it happened, but you admire him for admitting it, learning from it and using it to be a better person moving forward.
8. I keep coming back to Maya DiRado -- how great is that story in an Olympics where the news cycle didn’t have so many other great USA Swimming moments?
Rowdy: Another of those special moments. I have to mention her in those because she should be mentioned in every single one of the best moments she had, but especially that 200 back. She provided a moment that is just totally unbelievable, what she was able to do day in and day out through the Games in terms of continuing to step up and rise to the moment -- and on top of that have arguably the upset of the Olympic Games in the 200 back on a race that was pure guts and determination but also probably one of the most technically sound races you’ll ever see. Literally no one picked her to win that gold. Yet there she was on the podium with the flag rising and the National Anthem playing after the 200 back. There is a lot of power and resolve that young girls take from seeing Maya DiRado not only do what she did, but how she did it.
9. I felt like Lia Neal -- who would never complain about it of course -- didn’t get her due for becoming the first African American woman to medal in consecutive Games -- isn’t what Lia’s done incredible as not only a pioneer but how she carries herself?
Rowdy: She is and I am glad you made that point because she did fly under the radar a little bit because of Simone Manuel and then with Michael, Lilly, Katie and all the other great efforts -- it’s a great problem for the US to have (laughs), isn’t it? What Lia did is she provided that extra incentive that an African American girl realizes you don’t have to view it as something you do once and, Good job, that’s it, but you can do it twice or maybe three times. That is a powerful example and a great message for any swimmer who is black, Hispanic, Asian, white -- any ethnicity or race. And of course even if she wasn’t one of the best swimmers in the world you’d never forget her because she truly is one of the best and sweetest people you’d ever meet and such a great ambassador for the United States -- one of the best the Olympics will ever have. And what she’s done for swimming here can’t be overstated.
10. I think along with Katie and Maya I will never forget Simone -- this young woman who I know as a Cool-Hand Luke kind of character just overwhelmed by her own greatness and brought to tears after all that pressure, what do you think?
Rowdy: That gets to my favorite moment -- Simone, for primarily the obvious reasons. She can transform the sport. Cullen Jones, Byron Davis, Maritza Correia, just a few of the many names that preceded her that put it on the map. But for an African American woman to do what she did -- keep in mind, mentioning things that perhaps didn’t get the attention it warranted -- she won FOUR medals, TWO golds and a two silvers. What she did changes so much and will change the sport for the better. And the way she represents herself and her country is amazing.
11. I thought her words got twisted when she said about how race wouldn’t be the primary newsworthiness because what she was saying was I hope we have so many black and Asian and Mexican swimmers that we will have so much diversity race won’t need to be the headline forever -- is that right?
Rowdy: That’s exactly what she meant. And I hope one day we won’t have to say it’s a favorite moment because “she is an African American.” It is one of my favorite because she is African American, but like she said, hopefully it can be the norm and not a rarity, where maybe half the medals won are by people we are starting to see join the sport and excel, like Simone. But Simone is definitely a trailblazer, and she is so articulate and confident, she fills that role perfectly.
12. Did her own reaction catch you off guard?
Rowdy: I loved it. That reaction, and in the moment you never know how you’ll react -- but it was pure genuine, and that’s the best word you can use to describe Simone, genuine. She wears her heart on her sleeve. Credit that to her great family, her brothers and parents are great people. Include her club coaches and club teammates. Include her Stanford teammates and coaches, and her U.S. teammates and coaches. You could see how Maya and Lia and Simone fed off each other, and how well (Stanford head coach and assistant Olympic Coach) Greg (Meehan) works with them. It shows as much as anything, the value of being around great people.
13. Lilly King at Golden Goggles when I said, “A pic of you fake punching me in the face” and she balls up her fist, flexes and says, “Yeah. Which cheek?” What an incredible personality, right?
Rowdy: Lilly. Oh my gosh. She is my favorite swimmer. I get nervous when I am around her -- isn’t that weird -- because I am such a fan of hers. That’s how big of a fan I am. And I’m not like that a lot, but I am such a huge fan, and what she represented in Rio. I know there was some controversy in what she said and whether she should, but that took a lot of guts. What she said is right, and what she said is important: The only thing that can ruin our sport is the performance enhancing drugs that you have seen destroy other sports. So to have an athlete like that who can speak up and speak out, and then back it up, wow! To be able to back it up is just so impressive. So the controversy or whatever, it is what it is -- but to me, Lilly King is fearless, and she is just what swimming needs.
14. Her coach, Ray Looze, Meehan, Cal’s Dave Durden, NCAP’s Bruce Gemmell -- what a crew emerging after a few years of new coaches finding their way into the international scene?
Rowdy: Absolutely. There were some incredible coaches for the U.S. team. When I was in Atlanta I saw this first-hand; the coaching staff was so incredible. The biggest thing I noticed was their relaxed yet confident attitude. They were very businesslike yet very humble. They said all the right things, they did all the things necessary to make sure those swimmers were at their best, to be at their best for Rio.
15. And yet great veteran coaches too?
Rowdy: The best. Jack (Bauerle), Bob Bowman as head coach and of course David Marsh as a head coach. Let me tell you how selfless and plugged in these coaches were -- let me give you an example I saw: The coaches were prepared to do what had to be done. That even meant getting Gatorade or grabbing food. David Marsh texted me when we were at the pool in Rio, “Listen, I need you to help get a couple of meals for Michael and another athlete (Ryan Lochte) because we couldn’t get them for some reason and they’re in recovery and need to eat.” So there’s David Marsh, the head women’s coach, walking over to the NBC compound to grab two containers of pasta for two guys -- David came over and got it himself. Why? Because it needed to be done, and done at that moment. That was the kind of attitude the coaches, and the whole team had, in terms of being there for each other. No egos. How great for young coaches to see that’s how it’s done when it’s done right. USA Swimming knows a thing or two about how to do this, and you could see it on display constantly. From David and Bob to the young coaches, this was a special group.
16. You get the impression Frank Busch really fits well in this role as National Team director, don’t you?
Rowdy: No doubt about it, Frank knew he would have to take a little bit of risk to go with the young coaches, and to expect leading into it, some would make some decisions they might make differently but that is part of the growth and you stay with them and make sure they learn and grow from every experience. There were a lot of very established coaches he could have picked and no one would have complained. But he thought outside the box and that can be tough to do. So credit him for pushing the program forward with such smart thinking.
17. How amazing is the team when we get to the most dominant swimmer at the Games in Katie Ledecky -- I mean, forget about the swimming, she’s going to be a CEO or President some day, right?
Rowdy: Isn’t that the truth. She’ll be leading us all and bossing us (laughs) around and we’ll all be happy about it? There is no athlete I can think of during my career as a swimmer, or since retiring and working as a broadcaster and to grow the sport, that is more likable, humble, gracious -- and, oh yeah, more talented and determined, than Katie Ledecky. I have seen a lot of swimmers, and Katie has it all. Again, that starts with her family and her coaches and teammates. I loved meeting her family -- I don’t know that I have ever met such nice people in my life. That’s why it’s so easy to root for Katie. And it’s all well and good how great she is in the pool but it’s how she handles herself out of the pool that everyone will see for decades to come. And it’s worth mentioning that as great as Katie was, what Leah Smith did was so impressive -- Leah was incredible. Little girls who are 8-9 years old or so can look up to this team and find every great attribute and attitude you could ever hope to teach them.
18. You must’ve been thrilled to see Anthony Ervin win gold -- since he won his other at your other favorite Olympics, in 2000 in Sydney?
Rowdy: Talk about upsets, that was one of the big ones as well. I knew going in if he could just nail his start he’d be a factor to win. That was the only thing holding him back. Just one good start. Not a great start, just one good start. And it wasn’t great, but it was a good one and he knew he had it, he knew he could, after the start, have the confidence of thinking “I’ll be in the thick of this thing at the end.” It was so great to see. Talk about the peaks and valleys of life, it’s unbelievable the journey he’s had. It is a true comeback story that is among the better ones in Olympic history when you think about it, really, and all that went on in the past 16 years for him. This is a guy who slept on my couch at one point for three weeks. So this was very special to see. I’ve always known Anthony to be one of sweetest spirits I’ve ever met and known he has a really great soul. Even through his tough times you saw that really great soul. I always base that on how he was around my children, who were young at the time he stayed with us, and how sweet he was to them and how well he treated them. They adored him.
19. How did we get this far in and possibly have neglected talking about Ryan Murphy -- if you had a curtain on Rushmore for the next backstroke face and pulled it back even before the Games, it had to be Ryan, didn’t it?
Rowdy: Ryan is that picture next to Aaron Peirsol in the dictionary, where it shows you what you hope the next Aaron Peirsol looks like -- and there you go, it’s Ryan Murphy. All the physical credentials are similar but like Aaron -- yet in his own very distinct way -- Ryan has that very methodical, humble and laid back attitude -- you think about the backstrokers we’ve had who have been great the last 25 years, and they all have that wonderful similarity. What a special club, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be a member. Ryan being big-time to open that huge relay with the world’s biggest swim -- that tells you a lot about him. And again it’s his family, his coaches, his teammates, his character -- one of the great stories of the Olympics, and he was gold all three times he jumped in the pool, not just the record that most people will think of first.
20. And let’s end it with Nathan Adrian -- he’s always been such a great bookend, and his 100 free in London is my greatest memory, how big have his big-time swims been?
Rowdy: We couldn’t do it without him. The United States wouldn’t be where it’s at without Nathan Adrian the last eight years. It would be impossible to say we’d have all these golds in our pocket -- Pan Pacs, Worlds, the Olympics -- without Nathan Adrian. You get to the anchor, and he’s gotten us to the point where we know he’s going to bring home gold. We just know it -- it’s that simple. And as a quiet leader who carries himself in a way that anyone would be proud to see? That’s him. Every time. Outside the pool is where it’s going to be at for him with that quiet, calm, unassuming leadership style he has. Completely likable. You like and admire him for his character and integrity. What’ he’s been able to provide is irreplaceable. It’s so great to talk about Rio like this, because everyone we talked about -- and more -- is going to be a big part of American Olympic history for a long time to come.