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After the Olympic cauldron is lit Friday night to open the London Games (NBC, 7:30 p.m. ET), we won’t have to wait long for the first Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte showdown — they’ll go head-to-head in the first swimming final, the Men’s 400m IM, in which Lochte defeated Phelps at the U.S. trials, on Saturday (watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCOlympics.com or during NBC’s primetime coverage that night). As a walkup, we asked three-time 1984 gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, who’ll be calling his sixth Olympics for NBC, to name five times he’s been on the edge of his seat. Read (and watch!) his picks below, then add yours.
1. Anytime Michael Phelps, who’s said this will be his last Olympics, swims: He will go down as the person who has changed the sport more than any other person, entity, or thing in history. Especially the last couple of years, I’ve really loved watching him swim, win or lose, because I know we’re not going to be able to enjoy it very much longer. So any race he swims, I’m on the edge of my seat.
2. The Men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay in Beijing: It’s the greatest race in history mainly because of the facts leading up to it. The U.S. was a huge underdog. The guy anchoring for France was the world record holder. The U.S. had an anchor, Jason Lezak, who was basically a journeyman sprinter. He was a great sprinter, but he’d never won an individual medal. And he anchors in what is still, to this day, the fastest split in history. Also obviously, it kept Michael’s quest for eight golds alive. That’s the most edge-of-your-seat race I’ve ever seen.
3. Misty Hyman wins the Women’s 200m butterfly in Sydney: She swam against Australian Susie O’Neill, who was known as “Madame Butterfly.” She was the most popular female athlete in Australia, in her best event, and Misty wasn’t even supposed to make the final, really. Misty goes out like a bat out of hell. Some people’s game plan is to go out fast and try to hang on. The adrenaline sometimes takes over, and you jump on the first 25 meters if you’re swimming a 200, and you pay the price at the end of the race. I said, “She’s gone out too fast!” She’d done this before where she’d gone out, dropped like a rock, and didn’t win, and I thought the same thing was going to happen. She turned at the 150, and I’m going, “You know, she’s hanging in there. Even if Susie O’Neill passes her, she still may win a medal.” And then at 175, I’m screaming, like I usually do, “Ohmygosh, she may hang on! SHE MAY HANG ON!” And she hung on. It was pretty breathtaking when it took place. And once again, that’s because of the story leading up to it. That’s why the Olympics are so cool. It’s about knowing the stories of these athletes, why Misty Hyman’s such an underdog. That’s why people watch the Olympics, that’s why it’s so enthralling, because people get into the stories.
4. Summer Sanders’ last chance at winning individual gold in ’92. She’d come in with a chance to win five gold medals. She got beat by some Chinese swimmers, and there were some suspicions about the Chinese swimmers in ’92 and drugs, so for her to win that 200 fly and beat a Chinese swimmer along the way was pretty special. It was my first Olympics, and I felt a close attachment to a lot of these swimmers because I got to know them so well. It’s so easy to cheer for somebody that you know is really nice, and Summer was, and still is, such a nice person. You’re not supposed to. I’m supposed to be neutral. But I feel that way about international swimmers, too. I’ve pulled for many international kids along the way because I’ve gotten to know them. It’s hard to divest yourself from doing that. My partner Dan Hicks can do that, to some degree, because he’s the play-by-play guy, but I’m supposed to provide color.
5. The Women’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay in 1976. Some people will tell you it’s the greatest Olympic race in history. It’s second on my list. In 1976, the East German women swept nearly everything. Shirley Babashoff won four silver medals against East Germans who were later proven to have cheated with major performance-enhancing drugs. So the very last race of the entire competition was the 400 free relay for women, and the East Germans had kicked butt in the 100 free, going one-two, and the American women, including Babashoff, upset them. It was David versus Goliath. It was really a catalyst in showing that women belong in sports. I have four daughters, and I show them that race all the time and say, “This is what an underdog can do” and “This is great for women, in general, to see.” I was 17 years old, and it was one of the reasons I started swimming. I had just started on my high school team about two months before the Olympics and wasn’t really toying with doing much with it, but those Olympics inspired me so much, and that women’s relay especially. Still, to this day, I get goosebumps from just talking about it.
Come back on Thursday, when Rowdy names the five greatest things we won’t see on TV; on Monday, when he picks the five races you don’t want to miss in London; and on Saturday, when he explains what we should consider before yelling at him for circling the wrong lane on the Telestrator.