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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 29. Here's a bit of a trick question. Name the swimmer at the CenturyLink Center who has the most Olympic appearances. Hint: The answer is not Dara Torres. Nor is it Michael Phelps.
A few of the most-seasoned fans of the sport might have thought far enough outside the box to come up with the correct answer. It's Rowdy Gaines, the three-time gold medalist from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and set to cover his sixth Olympiad next month for NBC Sports. Simply put, Gaines is the voice of the sport.
Whether someone is a dedicated fan or a once-every-four-years follower, it's likely he/she recognizes the voice of Gaines, once one of the world's premier freestylers. He has been an NBC analyst since the 1992 Games in Barcelona, in addition to covering Grand Prix events and the NCAA Championships. And, who can forget the epic call of the men's final of the 400 freestyle relay by Gaines and broadcast partner Dan Hicks at the Beijing Games in 2008.
As Jason Lezak crept closer to France's Alain Bernard on the anchor leg of that relay, Hicks and Gaines delivered the action with unbridled excitement. It was a fabulous moment in the sport's history, and one Gaines will obviously not forget. Yet, as much as he recalls that race, he's anxious to write some new chapters at next month's London Games.
“I really enjoy what I'm doing,” he said. “I've never said I'm the best analyst and I certainly have a way of fumbling my words, but I love the sport and respect the athletes, and I'm passionate about what I do. It's really great.”
Passion is the aspect of Gaines' approach which stands out. It isn't uncommon for his voice to rise several pitches during a race, especially in the final meters, and it isn't unusual for Gaines to be borderline yelling into his headset microphone. It might not be for everyone, but that enthusiasm is his trademark and cannot be questioned.
There's no doubt about the faces of swimming, those guys named Phelps and Lochte. Thanks to their other-worldly talent and the rivalry between them, millions will tune in this summer to capture their exploits in London. Gaines, though, is also one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, and it's a credit to the giving ways of the 53-year-old.
It's been 28 years since Gaines collected three gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics, including victory in the 100 freestyle. In the nearly three decades since, he's been sure to give back. During breaks from his coverage of the United States Olympic Trials here in Omaha, Gaines has routinely signed autographs and posed for pictures — sometimes with youth, and sometimes with adults who remember watching him in competition.
Bottom line: The man understands his role.
“This sport changed my life,” said Gaines, still setting records as a Masters swimmer. “When I started swimming, it was an Ah-Ha moment. That was 35 years ago. It defined who I am, so I feel I owe it to the sport to repay what I've gotten. As we try to grow this sport, I think it's important to never walk away from an autograph, or try to give someone that pat on the back. There's a responsibility.”
This will be Gaines' fifth Olympics working alongside Hicks, one of the top commentators in the business. Aside from his Olympic duties, Hicks serves as NBC's lead announcer of the network's golf coverage, which includes the U.S. Open. The chemistry of the duo cannot be missed and has developed from Olympiad to Olympiad.
That chemistry was on display during the 400 free relay at the Beijing Games. As the United States dug itself a sizable hole behind France, there was little thought of a comeback by Lezak. Little by little, though, the gap closed, Lezak using the greatest relay split in history to keep alive Phelps' pursuit of eight gold medals. Gaines and Hicks worked perfectly together in not only the coverage of the race, but in the analysis of its importance in the bigger picture of Phelps' aim.
“We watched the race on replay yesterday when (Lezak) got up to race,” Gaines said, slightly shaking his head in disbelief four years later. “I told (Hicks) that it still gives me chills. It was pretty cool to have the chance to (call) that race.”
It's pretty cool to have Gaines as a face of the sport.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn