Ryan Lochte Michael Phelps
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Tonight, the London Games open (NBC, 7:30 p.m. ET), and tomorrow, the swimming competition begins. We asked three-time 1984 gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, who’ll be calling his sixth Olympics for NBC, to pick the five races you don’t want to miss. The times listed are when the finals will be streaming live on before airing on NBC in primetime.

1. Men’s 400m IM (Sat., July 28, 2:30 p.m. ET): It’s the very first final on the very first day of competition, and it’s the two best swimmers on the planet — Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte — in the decathlon of swimming. It’s one of only two races that they’ll be swimming against each other. Everybody’s pointing at the 200 IM final on Aug. 2, but the 400 IM is the one I’m looking forward to because it will set the tone for the rest of the Olympics for both of these guys. If you’re gonna push me over a cliff… I think Ryan has the edge in the 400 IM and Michael has the edge in the 200 IM.

2. Women’s 100m backstroke (Mon., July 30, 2:49 p.m. ET): It’s our introduction to “Missy the Missile,” 17-year-old Missy Franklin, and the fact that she’s swimming seven events. This will be her first final, and what makes it so dramatic is that it comes literally 19 minutes after her semifinal of the 200 freestyle. There’s no way that she should be able to win this, but we said the same thing at the Olympic trials, and she went out and broke the American record. At the trials, it was bad, but at least she could go to the warmup pool immediately and start warming down. Here, it’ll be worse because it’s just so much more difficult to get to the warmup pool, and you have to report to the ready room earlier than you do at the Olympic trials, and this being her first go-around, she’s gonna want to do things the right way and not be late. I don’t know how she’s gonna do it, but she’s been practicing this all year long where she swims a race and five minutes later gets up and swims another race. So she’s prepared.

3. Men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay (Sun., July 29, 3:54 p.m. ET): It will bring us back to Beijing and, in my opinion, the greatest race in Olympic history. People will have that image in their mind of Jason Lezak anchoring in what is still, to this day, the fastest split in history, and believe me, we’re going to be replaying that a million times that night. The U.S. goes in as a huge underdog again, but this time not just to the French, but to the Australians and the French. It’s the second night of competition. The drama will be building. And Phelps and Lochte could potentially be swimming together on this relay. If you missed the race in ’08, you were kicking yourself, and you don’t want that to happen twice, for god’s sake.

4. Women’s 200m breaststroke (Thu., Aug. 2, 2:38 p.m. ET): Only two American women swimmers won gold medals in Beijing, Rebecca Soni and Natalie Coughlin. Natalie Coughlin is not in the 100 backstroke, so she can’t repeat. Rebecca is the only one left. She’s been the best breaststroker in the world the last four years, and this will cement that position for her. If she wins this and the 100 breaststroke on July 30, she will go down, at least in my opinion, as the greatest woman breaststroker in history. You’re going to see some swimmers from the U.S. that peaked at the Olympic trials in Omaha, and they’re not going to swim as fast. It’s a given, it happens every Olympics. Their lone goal is to make the Olympic team, and it’s done. But a lot of them were definitely not peaking in Omaha, and three that immediately come to mind are Lochte, Phelps, and Soni.

5. Men’s 100m butterfly (Fri., Aug. 3, 2:38 p.m. ET): Once again, you think back to ’08 and you think about one one-hundredth of a second. How do you win a race by .01? You know we’ll replay that — me screaming like a girl, “One one-hundredth of a second! One one-hundredth of a second!” — until people are going, “Can you please quit playing that!” Once again, Michael will go in as a slight favorite, or maybe even an underdog, and there’s no room for error. You can make up a bad start in a 200 or 400, but you can’t make up a bad start or a bad turn in a 100. People definitely won’t want to miss this one.

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