Red Mclendon / AP
Rowdy Gaines after being awarded a gold medal in the men's 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, on July 31, 1984.
When swimmer Rowdy Gaines won the 100-meter freestyle at 25 years old in the 1984 Olympics, he was the third-oldest men's swimmer in history to win a gold medal.
At the time, Gaines had to fight against the sentiment that he was over the hill. Nearly 30 years later, if you applied that standard to the 2012 American men's hopefuls, seemingly every big name would be getting fitted for a rocking chair.
Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are both 27, Brendan Hansen is 30, and Jason Lezak is 36 – ancient in swimming years nearly 30 years ago. On the women's side, Dara Torres is making a run at an Olympic spot at 45 years old after becoming the oldest female swimmer to win a medal at age 41 in the 2008 Olympics. While advances in nutrition and training certainly have helped, the primary reason that so many swimmers can now have increased career longevity is simple.
“Money has changed the sport so much,’’ Gaines told TODAY.com. “The average age of this U.S. Olympic (swim) team might be the oldest in history, at least on the men’s side. It’s changed dramatically because of money, and that’s the bottom line.’’
Sponsorship and endorsement dollars plus a stipend provided by USA Swimming to members of the national team mean that careers can be extended much longer because of financial stability. It also means the days of teenage phenoms and NCAA champions ascending Olympic podiums may be numbered, at least on the men’s side, because those swimmers are now competing against the type of seasoned veterans who didn’t used to exist.
“When I swam, 90 percent of the Olympic team was made up of college swimmers,’’ said Gaines, who will serve as an Olympic commentator for NBC in London. “Now there’s so many established swimmers out there, it’s hard to sneak up on anybody anymore.’’
Swimming has traditionally skewed as one of the sports featuring the youngest athletes in the Olympics. While Olympic sports like sailing, equestrian events, pistol shooting and archery have athletes all the way in their fifties competing, sports like swimming and gymnastics have featured numerous teenagers over the years. Those teenage competitors still exist, like 15-year-old women’s hopeful Kathleen Ladecky, but they are rarely podium threats any more, particularly on the men’s side. When they make the team at that age now, it usually signals the beginning of a gradual process to peak in their early to mid-twenties.
The dominance of the veterans means the names being put up in lights leading up to the Olympics are the same ones Gaines expects to see making headlines in London. The men’s swimmer with the most pressure is not Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals in 2008, but Lochte, according to Gaines. Lochte has already won six Olympic medals, including three golds, and currently has the world records in the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter individual medley.
“The guy that's under the most pressure is probably Ryan because he's been the best swimmer in the world the last three years,’’ Gaines said. “He's no longer the hunter, he's the hunted. He's always been the hunter because he's been in the background of Michael. Plus he’s on the cover of all these magazines and all this stuff, so he has a lot of external pressure.’’
Davis Turner / REUTERS
Rebecca Soni competes in the USA Swimming Grand Prix Charlotte Ultra Swim in Charlotte, North Carolina May 12.
On the women’s side, the highest hopes will be pinned to Rebecca Soni and Missy Franklin. Soni is a three-time Olympic medalist who currently has the world record in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Franklin, 17, has the world record in the 200-meter backstroke (short course) and had a breakout performance at the 2011 World Championships.
“Rebecca has been the best breaststroker in the world the last four years, so that’s a lot of pressure to have,’’ Gaines said. “On the flipside, Missy is still a youngster, but because she flirted with everybody and let the secret out last summer (at the World Championships), the expectations are also high.’’
Winning world titles in between Olympics is one thing, but the gold medal is the pinnacle of the sport, so the pressure ratchets up dramatically. That’s why a swimmer like Lochte is under the gun to show that the titles he has racked up the past three years are simply a precursor to his moment in London and not the peak of his career.
“I think of it as everything in between the four years is like preseason football in the NFL,’’ Gaines said. “Unfortunately for us, the only thing that really matters from the outside world is the Olympic Games. That's our Super Bowl. In 20 years, nobody's going to remember the person that won three world championships.’’
While Gaines will be putting in 18- to 20-hour days at the pool for the first eight days of the Olympics, he is eager to eventually get a look at the other great athletes and teams across all the sports in London. He has attended every Olympics since his gold-medal performance in 1984, doing everything from watching a Dream Team basketball game in 1992 to checking out the table tennis competition in 2008. He also is a water polo and gymnastics fan.
“I love the Olympics,’’ he said. “I am the epitome of an Olympic fan. Anything I can get to, I will make a point to see all of these athletes at the top of their sport.’’
Scott Stump is a TODAY.com contributor who took third place in the Driftwood Beach Club kids' race in 1986.