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Even gold medal winners have to earn their spot on the U.S. team, where you're only as good as your latest race.

Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals (the 100-meter freestyle and two relays) at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. He manages a health and fitness club in Honolulu and will be a swimming analyst for NBC at the Atlanta Olympics. Here are some of his memories, as told to Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt:

The Olympic Swimming Trials are, in my opinion, the most highly intense meet for a swimmer in the United States _ and only the United States. We're the only country that has true Olympic Trials. You either make the team or you don't; it's that simple.

It's different in most other countries. Take Japan: They have trials, but they also make exceptions. If you make the team, you're not necessarily on the team. If their best swimmer gets sick a week before the trials and doesn't do well, in all likelihood it'll go to a committee and that swimmer will probably be put on the team anyway, taking a spot away from someone else.

Some countries, like Sweden, have a series of competitions from which they choose their athletes, and it can still go to a committee. Ours, there's no gray area. It's first place or second place or you don't go to the Olympics _ with the exception of the 100- and 200-meter freestyles, where you can still make the relay teams.

To a swimmer, the Olympics is the pinnacle of success. We don't have a Super Bowl or a World Series. We have the world championships, but that's like the AFC Championship. It's nice that Pittsburgh won it _ but it doesn't mean anything compared with the Super Bowl. And the Olympics come only once every four years. Imagine a Super Bowl only once every four years. Imagine losing it and having to live with it for the next four years.

The pressure just to make the team is extraordinary. The way I geared myself for the trials in '84, I used the 1980 boycott to motivate myself. I kept telling myself I deserved to make the team, to compete in the Olympics and to win a medal. I'd gone through the '80 boycott. The year before the '84 trials and Olympics, I had a lot of trouble dealing with with the pressure of everybody expecting me to win. I went through some pretty low points. But I came to realize, "Hey, I deserve this. I've put in eight years to reach this point."

Winning gold medals in '84 changed the direction of my life. I'd studied telecommunications. I wanted to be a motion picture director like my father; he does mostly television commercials, some documentaries. That all changed. I was able to capitalize a little on winning _ corporate speaking, some endorsements and appearances.

More important, winning those medals made me appreciate the kind of work ethic that went into it, to reach the top. I used to whine all the time about working out. I hated it; couldn't stand it. I always wondered if it was worth it. Until I reached that goal it was hard to appreciate it. After I won, all that damn stuff I went though absolutely was worth it.