By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - It was vintage Rowdy Gaines.
“What big turn! What a big turn by Michael Phelps!” Gaines exclaimed, perfectly capturing the moment Sunday when Phelps’ phenomenal turn in the second leg of the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay propelled the USA to gold in Rio.
Viewers have come to expect the ideal blend of passion and expertise from Gaines and broadcast partner Dan Hicks, the “Rod and Stan” of NBC’s Olympic swimming coverage, who first teamed up 20 years ago for the ’96 games in Atlanta.
“This is our sixth Olympic games that we’ve done together. And every single one, he knows his stuff,” Gaines said. “He’s so good, because I’m not a broadcaster. I know swimming. I know how to talk about swimming, but he really helps me craft a lot of things. He’s just a huge mentor. And he’s also a very dear friend of mine, which helps a lot.”
Gaines and Hicks have been behind the mic for all 19 of Phelps’ gold medals.
“I think our sport, at least in the United States, is in a golden age, so to speak, because we really do have four athletes, certainly one for sure, but I think four who are in that area of transcending the sport, meaning they’re popular even among non-swimming fans,” Gaines said.
“Certainly, Michael Phelps has already transcended the sport. And we all know what he’s done and what he’s capable of doing in his fifth Olympics. When you talk about Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky and Ryan Lochte, those are some pretty big names for the sport. I don’t think we’ve ever had any four names that are as big as those four names, all at one time.”
One of Auburn’s most decorated athletes, Gaines was poised to compete for multiple medals in Moscow in 1980, but the U.S. boycotted in protest of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
In 1981, his senior year at Auburn, Gaines was the SEC’s Athlete of the Year. In ’84, he won three golds in Los Angeles, memories that come more sharply into focus every four years.
“You just kind of feel, not only the joy, but also a little bit of pain from 1980,” Gaines said. “It’s not so much for me, because I had my day in the sun. I had the thrill of 1984. But I know when the Olympics come around, it affects those athletes who were part of ’80, who weren’t part of ’84 or ’76.
“There were 360 athletes who made the 1980 Olympic team, who didn’t make it in ’76 and didn’t make it in ’84, meaning that was their only Olympics. When this comes around, certainly the memories for them, and the heartache that they suffered, certainly come into my mind and my heart, and I feel for them. I certainly have much fonder memories for me, because I had 1984. Even though 1980 was tough to deal with, I had LA.”
A third-generation Floridian, Gaines lives in his native state but returns often to Auburn for swim camps and football games.
“My freshman year was the fall of ’77. Almost four decades. Auburn is and will always be my second home,” he said. “There’s nothing like coming back to Auburn and being a part of that community, and having gone to school there, and having grown from a boy to a man at Auburn.
“I guess, in simplicity, I owe Auburn everything. Auburn doesn’t owe me. They gave me so much. And I just feel like I could never pay back the University and the people around the University enough for what they gave me. When I come back, I just feel so at peace. It was a great place to grow up.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer