20 Question Tuesday: Rowdy Gaines
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He is known known as swimming’s chief ambassador to the rest of the world, but Rowdy Gaines was also among the top swimmers of his generation. The NBC commentator, who still works to promote and build swimming in Florida as Vice President of Aquatics for the Central Florida YMCA, shares his post-Trials and pre-Rio observations in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How do you feel about the U.S. team heading into Rio?
Rowdy: I felt really good about it. Let me preface it by saying I felt really good especially about the future. Do I feel good about Rio? I am cautiously optimistic. I feel good about it. But this is a young team. Even though average age is actually up, there are a lot of first timers here.
2. So people like Lochte, Phelps, Dana Vollmer, Missy -- the veterans have a lot of work to do?
Rowdy: I think the veterans are going to have to do a great job. They will have to mentor these kids. I think they will.
3. And yet because of NCAA and international experience, a lot of these first-timers are actually very accomplished at a high level, aren’t they?
Rowdy: They all have a lot of experience, whether it’s at the collegiate level or international level. Josh Prenot has great experience and won’t be afraid. And look at all that Ryan Murphy has done. So even though they haven’t been Olympians now, they will be fine.
4. Does that experience translate?
Rowdy: It’s a little different. I only say “young team” from an Olympic experience standpoint. From a pure experience aspect, the NCAAs prepare you for a lot. But it’s not the same as the Olympics even though they are prepared to step up on the blocks and do their best.
5. I keep seeing posts about how people didn’t go times fast enough at Trials to medal at the Olympics, but isn’t that kind of how it always is?
Rowdy: It is. In fact I was talking to (U.S. National Team director) Frank Busch about this the other day. I don’t know the exact details, but something like 15 percent (of swimmers) who go to Olympic Trials go a best time, and that’s been true for the last three Trials. Then 65 percent go their best time at the Olympics. So once they make the team, it’s a game changer for once they get up on the blocks when it really counts -- not that it doesn’t count at Trials of course, because in the moment that’s the most important time that matters, but as far as building on our Olympic excellence, the numbers show you can count on that.
6. You had a hard time at Trials with Cullen Jones and Madison Kennedy just missing the team -- is that accurate, that it moved you?
Rowdy: Yes, those kind of situations always do. You picked two good ones to mention, but also include Caitlin Leverenz and of course Matt Grevers. These are such great people and so steady when it comes to life outside the pool that they will be fine. But it’s still painful. You get to know these people and you care for them and admire them so much, it’s hard to be neutral. I’ve done swim clinics with Madison, and worked with Cullen for 7 or 8 years. Matt is just an incredibly generous giant. And look at the career Caitlin put together. So I feel pain because they are my friends, but I also know from who they are as people that they are already working on doing something else amazing.
7. You always talk about how great American coaching is, and then you see Dave Durden have so many guys make the team, amazing isn’t it?
Rowdy: I know. Dude. Man. I tell you Dave Durden -- I’ve known all along he’s a great coach, but he went right over the top with this Trials and he’s one of the best coaches in the world today. He got each and every kid to go fast -- even the ones who didn’t make it were fast. They all swam well. And the thing I like about Dave is he is fearless. This guy is not afraid to take risks. Everyone was questioning him when Ryan and Josh did not go to Pac 12s and they came here to Orlando for the Arena Pro Swim Series. There was a method to his madness. He wanted to prepare his guys for the biggest moments ahead. And it worked.
8. And Jack Bauerle does the same thing in just an amazing way -- isn’t that a great story in USA Swimming?
Rowdy: UGA. Absolutely. Jack has been such a huge leader and mentor to so many other swimmers and coaches. I was so happy for him. The year overall that he had.
9. For Jack, it was guys and girls, how unique is that?
Rowdy: You could make the case for for him to be on the women’s staff or the men’s staff. That’s how good he did -- even though Chase worked with Bob at the end, he came through that Georgia program. They all came to swim at Trials. That 400 IM to start, incredible. Olivia, Melanie, Hali, just builds on Jack’s legend in the sport. So you have a budding legend like Dave and a few others, and a few established legends on this coaching staff like Jack -- that’s an important good mix.
10. Anthony Ervin. Only guy on the team the same age as you? Go.
Rowdy: (Laughs) Not quite. But what a career. Anthony is another one that you just want to cheer for. He has such a sweet spirit about him, such a gentle soul, just a good guy. You love rooting for him. He’s had a lot of trials and tribulations. Some he brought on himself, he talks about in his book -- which I read and it is so well done -- and sometimes he was dealt bad cards, but he was able to persevere and get through it. He switched to Dave Marsh, and that was what he needed in that moment. All he needed was to get that start, and once he nailed that, he’s on the team again. Incredible.
11. How do you explain Nathan Adrian’s consistency, and making himself a gold medalist in 2012 in the 100 yet still winning the 50 at Trials? He’s another one that has a career set up and we’ll be seeing him in a lot of print and video ads.
Rowdy: Nathan really has been the model of consistency for the United States. He’s the go-to guy you can count on for any relay. He can maintain a lead and bring it home or bail them out coming from behind. When I look at him though, you just see a happy, smart man, who my daughters will tell you looks like a Greek God -- they are all in love with Nathan Adrian, and I hear about him all the time. He’s a great guy to have on this team.
12. Leah Smith -- how tough is that Virginia product? And her adorable line about seeing Katie’s feet -- this young woman is something special, isn’t she?
Rowdy: That was the line of the meet wasn’t it? “I felt so excited because I could see Katie’s feet!” Both of them were outstanding. I think it’s good for Katie. I think this will make her better. She hasn’t had...even during Michael’s hay day, he always had a rival, a challenger, Katie just hasn’t had that in four years in the 800 and 400, though in 2013 she was challenged when someone gave her a run. But to have Leah there right now is a good thing for her, and knowing Katie, it will push her to be better. One thing; I don’t think Katie was rested. (Coach) Bruce (Gemmell) can talk (laughs) the game, but Katie and Michael did not appear tapered for Trials.
13. How about Phelps, especially if he really wasn’t tapered, winning 3 events against incredible fields?
Rowdy: I’ve never seen Michael happier. I’ve known him for 16 years. I wouldn’t say I’ve known him closely, but I have known him and we are friendly. But we have grown closer as friends more in the past year than the first 15 I knew him. He’s completely relaxed, a happy person. He learned to keep his life in perspective. He did not lose an ounce of intensity. Not one ounce. He’s still just as intense. I think the relaxed way he is outside the arena is what has shaped his life into what it is today. He’s so good at time management when it comes to these things -- a meet like this -- and he’s so good to know what his limitations are. For him, he was able to do just what he needed to do to make a lane in the 100 fly final, and then the magic comes through. He can always count on himself in that 100 fly and that’s always the closest race, the smallest margin for error.
14. That’s incredible, isn’t it?
Rowdy: He won three 100 fly Olympic golds a total of 28 hundredths of a second. It just shows you that there is some magic in that race with him.
15. And Missy and Ryan, being in fewer events, perhaps that might lend itself to not only enjoying the experience more but helping all these first-timers?
Rowdy: I think for Missy and for Ryan, this will almost be a blessing in disguise, and they may not realize it until they get to Rio. Having more focus on one or two events is going to help them. I’ll give you an event for me -- I didn’t make the team in the 200. I had the world record, and I was seventh on the first day of Trials. I was pretty devastated, and then I barely made the 100, getting second. But that ended up really helping me, because there was no way I would have won the 200 in LA, and swimming it and going through that would have taken the edge off my 100. So Missy and Ryan’s concentration can be a little more focused instead of spread out. Ryan is 31 going on 32, MIssy is 21, so their bodies have changed dramatically since last time. Two or three events compared to six events is a huge change, and will allow them to do more in other areas.
16. And with 31 new faces, that’s a good thing right?
Rowdy: For them, this has become their destiny, to lead this team not just from example by what they do in the water, but what they can do outside the pool as leaders on this team. And Michael too, compared to doing six or eight events, this will increase his role within the team. Michael showed flashes of that in 2012, and he’s showing it even more now. So Michael and Ryan had it thrust upon themselves for the last Games to worry just about themselves -- and with where they were in their careers, it absolutely made sense. But now, they can lead, and they are all capable leaders. Michael will still get a lot of attention as the best ever in the sport and in the Olympics, but that’s not his fault. And I think you have seen how much he enjoys helping his teammates.
17. Getting to hang out with Maya in Austin opened my eyes to a perspective so beyond her years -- how impressive not to lose focus at Trials knowing her future is already set to hit the ground running with a quick retirement right after Rio and onto a great job?
Rowdy: I just want to beg (laughs) her to stay. When we get to Rio, I am going to say, “Please please don’t leave us!” We’re just getting to know her now. So I’ll beg her to stay. She’s the kind of person who is so good for the sport inside and outside of the pool. She’s got it together. She knows her stuff. She knows what has to happen inside and out of the pool. She’s a breath of fresh air. We barely got to know her the past four years, so maybe she can work and take a couple years off, and come back again.
18. How about Dana Vollmer and all the great attention she has brought to the sport -- people new don’t realize that she’s done similar feats before, coming back from record and gold in 2004 to missing the team in ‘08 and then coming back again in ‘12 with three golds, and now -- are there even words for what she’s done and is doing?
Rowdy: She is something else, isn’t she? She’s another one, and we have so many who are just gentle spirits, these wonderful, unpretentious, humble people -- Dana is an example of that, and when she’s out of the water, that great personality and mind take over. She’ll be another of those leaders. Dana has been through it, the adversity and the nerves -- she’s admitted the nerves got the best of her, so to have that kind of leadership to help these new Olympians through it is just something great for her teammates because she can help them avoid it. She’s just awesome and her comeback has been so successful. I also think Maya can be a tremendous leader.
19. I have never, in 30 years as a sports writer, seen a sport grow as fast or be as positively covered by the media as swimming -- where has this growth and adoration come from?
Rowdy: I think we would be hiding our head in the sand if we didn’t say Michael Phelps is the main reason the sport has grown so much and gotten so much attention. Dude, eight gold medals? He has certainly changed our sport or entity more than any athlete in history. Michael Jordan did that for basketball in many ways, and Tiger Woods did that for golf -- people would tune in to watch Tiger. That’s what we have when Michael swims. You look at the ratings, and when he swims, it is up 10 fold. And everybody shares in that success.
We’re also so fortunate that we have a great supporting cast. I can’t think of another era like this. Do you know who Mark Spitz’s teammates were? I do, because I’m older. But at the same time we have Michael, we have Missy, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky. Those are four names who have and can transcend the sport. Those are the four biggest names we perhaps have ever had in the sport -- and it’s all at the same time. That’s unheard of. But then you see Maya, or Dana, and you realize, it just keeps getting better. Katie’s storyline with being undefeated. How much the media loves Missy’s personality and articulation. How much fun Ryan Lochte is, and then how tough he was fighting through the injury to make the team. The maturation of Michael Phelps and in this era of media people being able to see his son’s effect on his life -- I think social media, and the way the athletes have embraced it in a positive way, has also helped.
I think another aspect you should consider is what Olympic Trials have become. Remember when it was in a parking lot in Long Beach in 2004? That was a good Trials, but look at what it is now, and what they have done in Omaha. A full arena, a major venue, and what an event it is. So you do put Michael on our Mount Rushmore, but you also have to put Chuck Wielgus and Mike Unger up there for seizing the opportunity and taking this sport to its current level. Our Trials is one of the best sporting events in the world. Those two guys had this vision, and it became more than anyone else of us could have ever imagined.
And you know what else? I hear criticism of their being too many (swimmers) at Trials. And I beg to differ. Completely differ. Those kids go back to their clubs and they are received as Greek Gods and Goddesses. The other kids think, “I want to do that too!” and right in front of them, in the lane next to them, is someone who did, so they know they can too.
20. My favorite thing besides interviewing all the folks you have named today, now tonight, is when the Rowdy Gaines Cup of Enthusiasm runneth over -- you are the best ambassador for this sport, and know it as well as any expert knows any sport -- so, is the future so bright we have to wear shades?
Rowdy: I really believe that it is. I think we are set up for the future. We have the perfect cast of characters, and a lot of young swimmers who didn’t make it...imagine Reece Whitley or Michael Andrew in four years, they will be monsters! We have so many talented young swimmers on both the men’s and women’s side. And I think a lot of the first-time Olympians that we are just getting to know now are going to be ones we hear even more great things from and about in the future.