By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Rowdy Gaines knew something special was happening the first night. The TV voice and ambassador for swimming saw the first day of the Phillips National Championships that something special was unfolding. Beginning with the C finals, which gave a preview of the World Junior Championships, presented by Sigma Gamma Rho, which will be broadcast by Gaines and NBC Sports also from Indianapolis, as Gaines explains in this first part of a two-part 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Did you even see an incredible Nationals like this on the horizon?
Rowdy: I think it’s incredible, especially considering the post-Olympic doldrums that understandably happen quite often to so many athletes. A lot of them take some time off and there are others who retire. It’s tough to get back up after the Olympics because you have to get up so much for that summer. You can’t blame them for wanting to take time off.
2. To see 13 Olympic men from Rio (14 Olympic men overall) and 14 Olympic women from Rio make the Worlds team, did that catch your attention?
Rowdy: The Surprising fact wasn’t just the ones who had Olympic experiences but the ones who really wanted to be a part of this party and stepped up at Nationals. They watched last summer and said, “I really wanted to be a part of that scene.” I think the 2016 Olympic team both inspired a lot of people who wanted a taste of it, and those who did have a taste of it and want to experience it again at Worlds.
3. Impressive yet disheartening to watch the depth in so many events where a top time or early swim that would have medaled any other time doesn’t make the team?
Rowdy: That is a part of it and I tell you those who did a best time know they did their best and they will be back -- whether they made the team or not. That depth was another thing that stood out to me. There are some events we consider ourselves weak in, but our depth even in those events is unmatched in the world.
4. A positive then when everything is considered?
Rowdy: In some of our events, the fourth and fifth place finishes would be in the hunt for medals at Worlds, and they don’t make our team. It trickles down to the B and C finals. And by the way, having 18 and unders in the C finals was just a great idea because everyone got to see not only the great swimmers coming up and how college swimming is going to get even better, but how special the U.S. World Juniors team can be.
5. In a lot of sports, a country often has a good Games, but then has to work to stay at the top -- it is largely cyclical, so to speak. Yet, how is the U.S. always so good in swimming?
Rowdy: I just think there’s always a reason -- people ask me all the time why the U.S. has been Number 1 for all these years -- and that is because the U.S. has built a tradition of excellence starting most importantly with the clubs, through college, and the coaching at every step is so great. Even in 2015 when people wanted to consider it an “off year” for the U.S., we still had the most points when you total in all the points (from the international meets). So my hats off to the people in our sport.
6. What was it like on the broadcast when swimmers were soaring to the front for the first time and you had to introduce them to the country as they made the team or won a B or C final?
Rowdy: Oh, it was incredible. To be quite honest, I didn’t know who Dakota Luther was. And how about Regan Smith, a 15-year-old? I could list names for the rest of our talk and I’ll still leave some out! The youth on the World Junior Team is impressive, yet some who would be standouts on that team made the World team!
7. A good problem to have?
Rowdy: It is. And we knew most of the names, especially from college or from summers past. True Sweetser we knew about from the collegiate season. There were a lot of them who were really close, like Zane Grothe last summer was so close. And finishing close like that does something to you -- it can inspire you. For Zane, it inspired him to make it this time. Zach Apple, I knew him because he’s an Auburn guy, but not a lot of people knew how good he is.
8. I have never had to research so many new bios, but isn’t that part of the fun?
Rowdy: I love it. How about Justin Ress, a 19-year-old, having to beat two Olympic champion backstrokers (Ryan Murphy and Matt Grevers) to make the team (in the 50) and he was right there in the 100, too. I mean, Ryan Murphy is the best in the world, and what Matt Grevers has done -- and continues to do -- is always all-world. But here’s this Justin Ress, who not a lot of people know about -- although he was great at N.C. State and those in the ACC world and NCAA swimming know about him -- but that doesn’t always translate to long course as we’ve seen so many times. Long course is just a different animal. But again, last summer lit a fire under a lot of people. We had the Olympics live on NBC this time which really drew a lot of attention, and seeing our teams perform the way they did -- all of the things when you add them up together -- were a huge motivation for our swimmers.
9. And you see that picture of the whole Worlds roster together and the smiles and arms on each other, and you think, yep, this will work, won’t it?
Rowdy: It’s sort of like last summer where you had veterans but you also had a lot of newcomers who blended in so well. They could look to those veterans and say, “I need some help” but then they knew when they had it and at a certain point they are ready to say, “We can take it from here.”
10. We can’t get out of the first half of the questions without mentioning Leah Smith -- how impressive has her development been?
Rowdy: Beyond words. Leah Smith kind of fell under the wing of Katie Ledecky, though she won two medals of her own (in Rio), she came back at Nationals and took it to a completely different level. And there are those now who are under Leah’s wings and will use that to push themselves to a new level. That is so huge for the sport.
11. And yet Katie Ledecky has all those expectations and still does nothing but improve, how is that possible?
Rowdy: It gets harder when you have that huge target on your back. Instead of chaser, you become “chasee.” And I can tell you that I struggled quite a while with being the one who was being chased. I liked having nothing to lose and having no pressure when I got up on the blocks. So you have to embrace that challenge, to take that and run with it. Knowing what that pressure is and having it fuel you, not hold you back, Katie, Ryan Murphy, they all do that so well.
12. And Caeleb Dressel, who is not “just a sprinter,” as he said -- though he’s still one of the greatest sprinters -- but to follow up last summer with this?
Rowdy: Caeleb Dressel has made such an impact. Caeleb, Leah Smith, Ryan Murphy, all of those are swimmers who learned so much from last summer. They are not the chasers any longer, but they responded so well to their new position that it only made them better.
13. And yet there’s Nathan Adrian -- how do you explain Mr. Consistency and Mr. Clutch to people?
Rowdy: Nathan Adrian is a guy who does it year in and year out -- a lot of people from that (2016 Olympic team) learned from Nathan how to handle the pressure. And there is no pressure like being a sprinter in the United States. And to handle that pressure for 9 years -- to respond year in and year out and rise to the moment -- is incredible. How consistent he has been is so underrated because sprints are impossible because there are too many little mistakes that can get you rundown. Nathan has withstood all that for nearly a decade!
14. We mentioned Katie Ledecky a minute ago. Even though she’s younger, isn’t what she faces similar?
Rowdy: Phelps-ish pressure is what Katie Ledecky has. I don’t know how she does it. I really don’t. I’ve admired a lot of swimmers and while Michael Phelps is on top of my Mount Rushmore, Katie Ledecky is right up there too. The consistency with Nathan is impressive in its own right, but with Katie it is different because she’s always the favorite in every meet in the U.S. and internationally. Katie’s the favorite in every race she swims -- except the 100. To be able to do that day in and day out is so impressive.
15. And the distance involved in the training, even though the technical part isn’t as costly as maybe a short sprint, isn’t what she has to demand of herself in those freestyle races equally as impressive?
Rowdy: Yes because the kind of training and intensity she has to have being a distance swimmer -- and throw in the demands of Stanford academics coming back from the Olympics and her performance all year long at NCAAs. But the thing with Katie that sticks out to me is her humility and grace. I know she has learned so much from her Mom, Dad and brother. My thing about Katie is that I hope we don’t ever take her for granted. And I think we do because there is that expectation every time that she’s going to do something miraculous. She goes 3:58 at Nationals and something says “Oh, she didn’t get a world record.” But 3:58 is no ho-hum time! Five years ago 3:58 would’ve been miraculous and we take it with a grain of salt now!
16. I have watched the maturation of Simone Manuel -- who has always been ahead of her time -- into this leader, yet she’s so young, how does someone with the weight of the world on her shoulders manage that?
Rowdy: Another thing about Simone, she got a taste of that incredible team last summer and to be a part of that not as a bystander, but as a follower so to speak, and now she has taken a totally different mentality where she’s this huge leader. Everyone looks to her as someone who can lead now, in more ways than one; with Simone being African American and making history, she leads in so many more ways. That’s a lot of pressure. But just like Katie, she’s got a great family with her parents and her brothers, and she has that great dignity and grace. And they both have a great coach in Greg Meehan. When Simone got upset in the 100 at Nationals, it didn’t make her fall apart at all. If anything, it strengthened her resolve. She was actually faster at these Trials than she was last summer (at Olympic Trials).
17. Isn’t that wonderfully bizarre?
Rowdy: Katie was faster at these Trials, Simone was faster at these trials, and consider what both went through from last summer until now. Katie was less rested here (at Nationals) than she was at Olympic Trials last summer. It’s an exciting time. That doesn’t mean the U.S. will dominate (World Championships) like they did in Rio -- something like that won’t come along often. So maybe they won’t win half the gold medals (like in Rio). But at the same time, they will probably have a better Worlds than they did two years ago, which is amazing.
18. We also touched on Caeleb, but how do you make sense of his incredible butterfly?
Rowdy: That was something. But you know what impressed me more? His 200 free. I saw what he did in the 100 fly at NCAAs so I knew he had a great 100 fly in him, but had no idea he had such a great 200 free in him. That was really impressive. Being on the 4x200 relay at Worlds is a great thing for him. But to think about all of his success at Nationals in different strokes and freestyle events left me flabbergasted! I have to think back (pause)...I’m guessing you have to go all the way back to Matt Biondi to find a guy in this sport that can swim a 50, 100, and 200. There might be more, but at the level those two are at, it certainly is special.
19. For all the media attention, I’ve found Lilly King really easy to root for, what have you seen in her this year?
Rowdy: I saw the article where she talked about how she struggled to get back into it. Once she decided, “I am OK and I’ll be OK,” she responded so well and I think she worked harder than she did even in the lead-up to Rio last summer. That really showed in her 200 (breaststroke) where she was two or three seconds faster this time.
20. The diversity on the pool deck at Phillips 66 Nationals -- and on the roster for Worlds, World University Games, and the World Juniors -- was more than I’ve ever seen in the U.S., what was your impression?
Rowdy: It is here and it’s something that I hope becomes so common that you eventually never have to ask me about it -- let me explain what I mean by that because I love our diversity and am actually very proud to talk about it: I want it to become so commonplace that it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, that people only notice a very diverse sport with all minorities -- Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and all others -- continue to have more representation, especially at the highest level. And that’s where we are headed. I want Simone to have so many teammates from minority groups that people want to ask her about her races, not focus on race. And that will happen because of people like Simone, Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, Maritza (Correia), Reece (Whitley) -- it will be a natural thing because it is happening on a more regular basis. It is where the sport is headed, and it makes me so proud. We saw a lot more at this Nationals, and I fully expect to see it continue to build in the future. It’s great for everyone.