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AN EXPERT'S VIEW // ROWDY GAINES

Rowdy Gaines, triple gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a swimming analyst for NBC at the Atlanta Olympics, shares his thoughts with staff writer Bruce Lowitt on the prospects of the '96 U.S. men's team against the rest of the world.

I think the United States is going to win more medals than any other country. Russia's got a head up just a little bit because you almost give them four golds right away. But I believe the United States is going to surprise a lot of people.

Alexander Popov is half a second ahead of anyone in the 100-meter freestyle. Nobody can touch him there. But the 50 is a crapshoot. Gary Hall, David Fox, maybe someone else can beat Popov. It depends on who gets the best start.

How we do in the middle distances depends on how well the Australians are swimming. How Tom Dolan does depends on how healthy he is, whether he can stand the heat.

In the butterflies it's Russia's Denis Pankratov followed by everyone else. My dark horse in that event is Tom Malchow. And in the intermediate medleys it's Dolan and Jani Sievinen. They can go 1-2, Dolan winning the 400 and Sievinen the 200.

Jeff Rouse and Tripp Schwenk can go 1-2 in the 100-meter backstroke if Jeff can keep his head together and not go down in history as just a great relay swimmer. And it could be Tripp and Brad Bridgewater in the 200, although the Russian, Vladimir Selkov, could beat them both.

We're just going to have to rely on recent history in the breaststroke. Nelson Diebel went into Barcelona ranked 21st in the world and won the gold medal. That's where U.S. breaststrokers are now, not expected to do anything. The Hungarians are favored, along with with the Belgian, Fred deBurghgraeve.

We'll win the 400 free relay going away and I think the 400 medley relay will be the best swimming race in Atlanta. It's the last event of the meet and it'll come down to Russia and the United States. Russia reminds me a lot of the Chicago Bulls. They've got three great swimmers and everyone else is so-so.

We're not going to win the number of medals we've been used to winning in the past. I think we're definite underdogs in almost every event. We're only favored to win a couple of gold medals _ Dolan in the 400 IM, maybe Jeff Rouse in the 100 back, maybe the 400 relay. It's Bridgewater, Malchow and some of the other dark horses that are going to carry the team into medal contention.

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