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Ambrose “Rowdy” Gaines, the three-time gold medalist (Los Angeles Olympics, 1984) and longtime NBC swimming commentator, caught up with The Hollywood Reporter from Rio de Janeiro amid the 2016 Rio Olympics. He talked about his support for Lilly King, the American swimmer who has taken a hard line on athletes, and how it reminded him of the case of the Shirley Babashoff, and why he’s a little jealous of today’s swimmers. He also solves the mystery of his nickname.
The highlights of the conversation:
Where does the nickname “Rowdy” come from?
It came from an old television show called Rawhide. There was a character called Rowdy Yates and my parents thought it was a great name and they didn’t think it would stick. My real name is Ambrose Gaines IV and I don’t have a middle name, so it’s just one of those names that I’m stuck with.
Do you have a favorite moment from the swimming competitions so far?
The butterfly, because of the drama and Lilly King. I think that was the one I was most excited about and King is young, brash, and wasn’t afraid to take on the world. I loved her attitude the whole way and she was fun-loving, easygoing and very confident. Not cocky at all. She just knew what she was doing under pressure. That’s tough to do at this stage, especially at 19.
She did her share of trash talking. Are swimmers usually trash-talkers?
I love it. It makes great TV and as long as it doesn’t go to the edge and get personal it’s good for me. It obviously with Lily King and Yulia Efimova is very controversial and you know, it’s the truth. The Chad Le Clos thing and the back and forth to Michael — it’s a little thing and it starts a small fire and becomes a huge blaze sometimes within the media, but it’s definitely a huge deal..
Do swimmers trash talk before a race?
There are some subtle things that happen. I know there are, and I’m not naming any names, but I know that there are some where before [a race] they will splash water in your face, or spit in the other person’s lane and things like that. They usually go unnoticed. You’re just so focused on the task at hand and to complete the task. But there is usually not a lot of trash talking.
Lilly said athletes who fail the drug test should not be allowed on the Olympic team, even after they complete their suspensions. Do you agree with that?
I absolutely agree and support her, 100 percent. She had to make a statement and for me, I don’t want to go back to 1972 when Shirley Babashoff spoke up [about doping] and obviously she was labeled poor. It was systematic. This is the same problem and it is about time for our current athletes to speak up. It’s going to take a lot more than just me doing it as a former athlete. It’s going to take the ones that are currently competing. We need ones that are going to be able to back it up in the pool also.
You straddle that divide between when athletes had virtually no power and officials could muzzle athletes, and the current system where they have more independence and freedom to speak out.
Yes, no question about it. I mean, they tried to do that to Shirley. I got beat in 1982 and it was at the height of the East German [doping]. We didn’t have that kind of platform that the athletes have today, and we certainly didn’t have that type of independence back then as they do today. I support them 100 percent. I’m not sure that the Olympics is the platform to do that. I’m not sure that it isn’t, but if that’s the platform they are going to use, then more power to them.
Phelps has had great Games. Do you think he will come back for a sixth?
I’ve learned to pretty much never say never, and that can happen with any athlete. You never know when they are going to surprise you. I wouldn’t say Phelps won’t come back. I could see him in two-and-a-half or three years saying that he is trying to come back. I could definitely see that. I don’t think it will happen, but I definitely won’t be surprised.
Professionalism now allows athletes to compete well into their 20s and even early 30s. If you were a current athlete, would you try for multiple Games?
Yeah of course! Are you kidding me? I think its great that these athletes can do that. Yes, I’m a little jealous. I think that at 25 I was the third oldest swimmer to win a gold medal, individually, in history, and now that’s the average age of our Olympic team. It’s changed because of money and I might’ve tried to stick around at least one or two more Olympic Games and that’s great! That’s their job. They swim as their job and that’s part of their lives. It’s awesome.
Missy Franklin has had a tough Olympics. What advice would you have for her?
Baseball players are considered amazing, making millions of dollars a year for batting .300. When they get into a slump, they try to get out of it and they usually do. She’s in a slump. It was just a year ago when she was a finalist at the world championships and won a silver medal. It’s not like she’s fallen off completely, she’s just having a tough time right now. She’s way too talented.
What are you most looking forward to in the last few days of swimming?
It’s going to be epic. The women’s 800 freestyle, with Katie Ledecky. The two best swimmers in the world competing, Michael and Ryan. And knock on wood, Ledecky will be going for her fourth medal.
Update: Corrected to fix a couple of transcription errors in Gaines’ answers.
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