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Rowdy Gaines: Narrator of Phelps’ career, spirit of NBC’s swimming coverage

If Michael Phelps wants to know what his future holds, maybe he should ask NBC’s Rowdy Gaines.

Consider that as Phelps insisted he was retiring from Olympic competition at the close of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Gaines was predicting Phelps would return in Rio. “He’s such a competitor he’ll miss it, he’ll get bored,” Gaines told USA Today at the time. “He’s relishing the lovefest that’s been thrown at him. But it’ll subside and he’ll be able to walk through airports in a couple years and not be mobbed. He’ll miss that.”

So, swami, will Phelps try to add to his medal count at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics?

“Would I be surprised? No. But I’m not going to predict it,” says Gaines, in an interview. “He’s a guy who likes to stay in shape, loves to be part of relays and if he does come back he’d be a factor once again. But this time it’s different (from 2012) because his life has changed so dramatically” – noting Phelps, 31, is engaged to model Nicole Johnson and the couple have a baby boy.

And don’t think Gaines is just motivated by personal reasons when it comes to Phelps making his final, final retirement. The notion of swimming’s greatest superstar being nice and dry and available for on-air TV work doesn’t seem to faze the current NBC lead swimming analyst. “Would he take my job?” says Gaines, chuckling. “Believe me, he would be great. He’s sat in with us some and he’s amazing. He’d be awesome! Who better than Michael Phelps to represent swimming on television?” (Still, Gaines might want to remember how to make the argument how three-man broadcast booths can also be quite entertaining.)

OK, so maybe Gaines won’t talk us into betting on Phelps coming back in 2020. But his prediction four years that Phelps would return to Rio just make you want to ask him, say, where he sees the stock market going. Or, at least, who he has going to the Super Bowl.

But instead of being able to see the future, maybe Gaines just really knows how comebacks can change it.

He should. Growing up in Winter Haven, FL, Gaines wasn’t much good at sports, but didn’t quit. Instead, he found swimming, won a scholarship to Auburn and seemed poised to win a handful of medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics.

Of course, we’ll never know. The U.S. boycotted those Games to protest the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. That controversial policy decision had at least one clear effect: Gaines felt his Olympic window, never opened, was closed for good.

After his father scolded him for stopping swimming and feeling sorry for himself, Gaines made a comeback at age 25 and won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Then, in 1991, Gaines made a really big comeback .

In 1991, he was inflicted with Guillan-Bare Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can lead to permanent paralysis or death.

After temporary paralysis and months of hospitalization, Gaines had to relearn old skills – like how to swim.

At 35 – yes, that’s very age Phelps will be during the 2020 Tokyo Games – Gaines managed to qualify for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. But rather than compete in those trials – “I was realistic, I knew I had no chance of making the Olympic team” – he instead joined NBC’s 1996 Olympic coverage and has been a part of it ever since.

(This will be Gaines’ seventh NBC Olympic on-air assignment, including his stint an analyst on NBC’s 1992 pay-per-view supplemental Olympic TV.)

That NBC has drawn consistently outstanding ratings for Phelps Olympic performances, no matter what the time zones of the various Games or the fields he swam against, suggests the swimmer is the biggest single draw ever on U.S. Olympic TV.

So now, unless of course Phelps splashes again in Tokyo, what happens to Phelps’ ripple effect on the sport? Gaines suggests lots of the progress is permanent. He recalls that in the months before he joined NBC’s 1996 Atlanta coverage there was “just was no swimming on TV, just one women’s college meet that was on at 3 AM.” He says he’s in his my 28th year covering NCAA competition and for at least the first

15 years it only aired in the middle of the night. This year alone, I’ll cover 20 meets for TV – mainly thanks to Michael.”

Swimming, is only temporarily, might face some choppy waters. “As great as Michael is, the sport is still bigger than one individual.

He’s been so good for the sport, but I think it will recover eventually. It will take some time. There’ll be some growing pains, post-Michael.”

Not that Gaines sounds like he’ll do much fretting. The father of four daughters lives in Lake Mary, FL, where he does charitable work, swims nearly everyday and competes in seniors events three or four times per year. But, he says, “I’m not into the competition part anymore. I’m in it for the mental and emotional benefits. I feel at peace in the water.”

Fair enough, given Gaines is now 57.

Which leads to big question about Gaines: How weird is it to be a middle-aged guy still being hailed as “Rowdy”?

That moniker might make lots of his fellow middle-aged guys a bit envious -- at least unlike they realize the name might complicate things when, say, they tried to quiet down their own kids – but Gaines is simply resigned.

His father gave him the nickname from a character – played by Clint Eastwood -- from the old TV show Rawhide, which debuted the year Gaines was born.

Nobody thought the nickname would stick to Ambrose Gaines IV. “My best friends still call me ‘Ambrose.’ I didn’t think as a kid that I’d be ‘Rowdy’ at 57. It’s a nickname I was born with and couldn’t shake. But I don’t know how I could become ‘Ambrose’ again.”

Now that would be a comeback.