Rowdy Gaines on 9 Swimmers to Watch in Tokyo (and Sharing the Booth With Michael Phelps)
For the first time since 2000, Michael Phelps will not be in the pool for the Games. “It is a shock to the system. There’s no doubt,” says analyst Rowdy Gaines of losing the most decorated Olympian in history to retirement. “Our Michael Jordan, our Tiger Woods, our Tom Brady is gone.” Still, he notes, “USA Swimming has been No. 1 in the world since 1956. I feel good about this team.”
Caeleb Dressel is Phelps’ heir apparent, and for one reason. “He’s the fastest swimmer in the world — it’s a pretty good title to have,” Gaines says. The 24-year-old Floridian holds world records in two of the three individual events he’ll swim in Tokyo (the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly). Add in the 100m free and the potential to be on all four relays, and “it’s not an unrealistic shot at seven gold medals,” Gaines says. Although it won’t be easy. Just like Phelps, whose program included three relays when he won his historic eight golds in Beijing, he’ll have to rely on support from others. “Michael had to have the perfect storm in ’08,” Gaines says, pausing to remember Jason Lezek’s incredible anchor leg in the 4x100m freestyle relay that kept Phelps’ dream alive. “And Caeleb’s gonna have to have the perfect storm in ’21.”
Katie Ledecky remains a force. The five-time gold medalist returns for her third Olympics with the top 23 times ever recorded in the 800m free. No one has beat her in that race in nine years. “That kind of domination needs to be appreciated,” says Gaines. Now 24, she will also be the favorite in the women’s new 1,500m free, but she’ll need to upset Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 200m and 400m.
The U.S. has won gold in both the 100m and 200m men’s backstroke for six consecutive Olympics — which puts pressure on Ryan Murphy to repeat his 2016 double. “There’s a lot of pride at stake,” Gaines says.
Michael Andrew, long considered “the promised one” because he broke more national age group records than anybody else in history as a kid, finally makes his Olympic debut at 22 in the 50m free, 100m breaststroke and the 200m individual medley, where he’s expected to flirt with Ryan Lochte’s world record.
Emma Weyant & Hali Flickinger
In the women’s 400IM, Americans Emma Weyant and Hali Flickinger come in with the top two times in the world this year. But the reigning Olympic champion and record holder, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú, isn’t nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for nothing: “Everything has to go through her,” Gaines says.
Lilly King & Annie Lazor
The always confident Lilly King should touch first again in the women’s 100m breaststroke, while training mate Annie Lazor — who lost her dad in April and leaned on King to stay focused — could finish on top in the 200m. If they share the podium as they did at June’s Olympic trials, have tissues handy.
After being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome in March, Simone Manuel — the first Black female swimmer to win individual Olympic gold in 2016 — failed to make the 100m free, but she’ll swim the 50m and, Gaines suspects, multiple relays.
Speaking of those, the new mixed 4x100m medley relay is going to be wild. Countries use two men and two women — but on what strokes is up to them. Meaning, Murphy could lead off vs. Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, then King could be chased down by Britain’s Adam Peaty. “You’re going to see the lead change hands dramatically,” says Gaines. “It’s gonna be the funnest race of them all.”
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And don’t be surprised if Phelps is in the booth to analyze it. After making a few well-received appearances during the trials in Omaha, Nebraska to provide commentary, he’s set to join Gaines and Dan Hicks in Tokyo for select races. “He knows things, sees things no one else does,” Gaines says. “It’ll be great to have him.” Plus, it means he won’t be texting Gaines while he’s live on-air, which Phelps also did in Omaha.
“He was letting them fly!” Gaines says with a laugh. “He doesn’t have any expectations, but it’s Michael Phelps — you feel like, ‘I better return this text.’ So I’m trying to text and commentate at the same time — that’s not an easy thing to do! And I wouldn’t do that with anybody else. Well, maybe my wife…one of my kids if there’s an emergency.”
The Tokyo Olympics air Friday, July 23 through Sunday, August 8 on the networks of NBC. All events stream live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. Check local listings and NBCOlympics.com/schedule.