This feature first appeared in SwimSwam Magazine‘s 2016 Olympic Preview. It profiles Tommy Roy, the producer behind NBC’s coverage of Olympic swimming pre-Rio, but it also provides insight into USA Swimming role in the broadcast. Newly named Interim-USA Swimming Executive Director Mike Unger has lead this team going back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
If you need swimming intelligence, call Rowdy Gaines. He’s the unofficial CIA Director for our sport. And for this particular topic, he may know more than anyone on earth.
I ring Rowdy out of the blue for a straight, unvarnished reaction. Tell me about Tommy Roy, NBC producer of the swimming television coverage at the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games?
“Working with Tommy?” Rowdy asks, mulling my question. “Well, it is like going to war. Not in a bad way. I mean, once you’re inside the Olympic venue, and the event is rolling, you don’t leave. We work 18-20 hour days. Tommy leaves nothing to chance. We’re ready for anything and everything, and at the Olympics anything and everything happens.”
If you are among swimming’s uninitiated, 3-time Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines is NBC’s on-air swimming analyst, has been since 1996. 2016 will mark his sixth round in the seat breaking down the ‘why’ of what’s happening in the pool.
“Hey buddy,” Rowdy continues by phone from his Florida home, “if I can say anything about Tommy Roy, it’s that swimming’s lucky he’s running the show. NBC put their most experienced pro on the job.”
Tommy’s a television veteran and a sports industry icon. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s he was NBC Sports’ executive producer, overseeing the network’s entire slate, everything from the complete telecast of the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games to the MLB, NBA, NFL and more. At one point in history, he was the most-Emmy-nominated sports producer of all-time.
In a nutshell, Tommy is the Michael Phelps of producers, which is apropos. He has produced NBC’s coverage of swimming for every Olympic Games since 2004.
“That’s something I’m proud of,” Tommy says from his NBC office. “I’ve covered all 22 of Michael Phelps’ Olympic medal swims. That’s one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
Tommy started with the network in 1981 and quickly impressed the brass, rising rapidly through the ranks. By the early 1990s he was already racking up Olympic experience by producing “Dream Team” basketball coverage at the 1992 Barcelona Games. He was crowned Executive Producer in 1996, but voluntarily stepped down in 2005 to follow his passion. Tommy is the son of a golf pro, the late Billy Roy, a PGA Class A professional for 50 years. Golf is what Tommy loves, both to play and to produce for NBC. For him, there needs to be an authenticity to golf coverage, and that requires a crew with a background in the sport and a love for the game. Tommy brings that same philosophy to the pool.
“I like my Olympic crew loaded with swimmers, and we are—in the truck, on camera, and operating cameras,” Tommy explains as a matter-of-fact.
While we see Rowdy Gaines’ familiar face on TV during the Olympic broadcast, there’s a lot more swimming muscle behind the scenes.
THE SWIM-TV TEAM
Mike Unger, USA Swimming Assistant Executive Director, is in the production truck. That’s the large vehicle you see outside of aquatic venues during major swim meets with miles of wire roping out of it. This monstrous vehicle is command central, a dark beehive, honeycombed with monitors revealing endless camera angles of the pool. In Rio, Mike will be a production truck vampire, essentially living there for eight full-days.
“Mike’s vital to the production,” Tommy says, “telling the television director the next event, when the swimmers will parade on deck, who’s going to be in the lead. It’s a big timing crossword puzzle, determining commercial breaks. Mike does it. Mike does it all.”
Susan Woessner, USA Swimming Director of Safe Sport, is the youngest of the aquatic crew on Tommy’s team, and loves it. “Who knew being a swim nerd could have so many perks,” she says from her Colorado Springs office. Susan has, perhaps, the best seat on the planet to witness swimming history. She’s seated immediately next to Dan Hicks, NBC’s longtime swimming host, and Rowdy, for deep data support – quite different from her every-day job of ensuring the protection of the sport’s young athletes. It’s a gig she’s enjoyed since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “There’s a lot of prep on the front end,” she explains, “and a lot of real-time stats I supply as notes while the races are live.”
Larry Herr, USA Swimming Performance Database Director, is the team’s secret weapon. He’s the human-computer behind the governing body’s SWIMS database, but you may appreciate and know him more as the force behind USA Swimming’s Twitter account @USASwimStats. Larry’s essential on the lead-up to the Olympics, prepping Tommy, Mike, and Rowdy, and during the event he’s a mere foot off-camera adding support to on-deck reporter Michele Tafoya, NBC’s NFL sideline reporter and two-time Emmy winner herself, who’s been assigned to swimming for 2016.
Ken Walsh is behind the camera, operating one of the cameras, and like Rowdy, he’s swimming royalty. At the 1968 Olympic Games Ken captured two golds and a silver. His gold medal haul was a star-turn for Team USA, anchoring both the 4×100 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays. He claimed his individual silver in the 100 freestyle. In sports television, Ken’s a career-pro, a foot soldier in the trenches with a resume that parallels Tommy’s experience. Ken’s been there and done it all.
True to Tommy’s word, NBC is stacked with chlorinated support, but that doesn’t really explain the level of mastery this team has leading into the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. Mike, Rowdy and Larry are the central unit, swimming’s starting players, a battle-hardened trio behind television coverage we’ve enjoyed year after year since 2004 at the Mutual Omaha Duel in the Pool, U.S. Nationals, Pan Pacific and World Championships.
Trials and the Olympics? That’s just the big show, and they’re more than ready to deliver for Tommy.
TOMMY ROY – DIVING DEEPER
“Swimmers and swim fans,” Tommy says, pausing for effect, “…they will be happy to know NBC is covering all eight nights of U.S. Olympic Trials competition in prime time. That’s different…this time around, and we’re proud to do it.”
NBC’s coverage of swimming has improved over each quad, and you can expect a more visceral experience due, in part, to technological advances. Beijing 2008 marked the first time the network used X-MO, a camera capturing 50,000 frames per second, delivering the smoothest super-slow-motion sequences ever witnessed in sports television. Pressing Tommy for details on the 2016 coverage, his voice notches-up an octave in excitement about their Dreamcatcher 4k replay system. Dreamcatcher is a visual god of sorts, allowing them to zoom in super-tight (or zoom out) capturing the most intimate moments of drama in beautifully saturated, data-dense color.
“Technology is one thing,” Tommy explains, “but, more importantly, we’re fans of the sport, and that comes through in the telecast.”
After six rounds of Olympic Games coverage, Tommy’s clearly a fan. Recalling moments his passion resonates.
“Sitting here, thinking now… Katie Ledecky’s 800 free in London was my favorite of 2012. The buildup was there. Rebecca Adlington was the hometown favorite to win. British Royalty showed up to watch her defend her title. Katie, only 15, the youngest on the team, the little sister to all of the swimmers, kept building and building that race. She won. It was the start of Ledecky domination.”
Listening to Tommy describe Ledecky’s race, you hear him relish the story beats, the in-the-moment magic producers love.
“It’s all about storytelling. That’s our business,” Tommy says. “The exciting part is we don’t know what’s going to happen. We have an idea, and Rowdy’s an exceptional analyst, one of the best. He can predict winners nine times out of ten.”
Tommy and his swimming crew have an idea of what the big stories will be in Omaha, and hopefully Rio. Michael Phelps vs. Chad le Clos will be featured. Missy Franklin is the returning female star, but can she bounce back after some challenging years? And we know how Tommy feels about Ledecky.
“Omaha, Olympic Trials, for me…the story’s more often than not who gets second or third. That’s the drama of that competition.”
Details of NBC’s coverage are closely guarded. You can expect surprises, but Tommy did share that he missed something at the 2012 Olympic Trials, something he won’t miss again.
“My daughter, Kelly, was fourteen in 2012, volunteering for USA Swimming at Trials. She had to keep track of the top-two winners, to guide them to the medal ceremony. She noticed that every time a swimmer made the U.S. Team, Michael Phelps would go up and congratulate them. I didn’t learn about that detail until the end. We’re going to capture that this summer.”
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