by Kate Asbury Larkin
By the time Rowdy Gaines began the winter semester of his junior year at Winter Haven (Fla.) High School (WHHS), he had pretty much tried every sport his school system offered and all with pretty much the same result. Doom. He was either too small, too short, not coordinated enough, or just intimidated by the size and aggressiveness of the bigger guys.
“Since junior high, I had tried football, baseball, basketball, tennis and golf, and I was terrible at all of them,” says Gaines. “In February of my junior year, I took a shot at swimming, really because it was just next in line on the list of sports. I fell in love with it my very first day in the water.”
That instant love turned into a passion, and along with an obvious, natural, God-given talent, swimming changed Gaines’s life forever.
In spring of 1976, WHHS competed in the state championship meet where Gaines went virtually unnoticed, as you might expect after only two months in the water. However, undeterred, he kept swimming and competing through the summer and into his senior year with rapid improvement and impressive results. So impressive, in fact, that he caught the eye of then Auburn University swim coach, Eddie Reese.
“I was amazed at how much Rowdy had improved in such a relatively short amount of time,” says Eddie. “I could see incredible potential in him, and I saw a very competitive spirit. I have always liked to recruit swimmers who have the potential for their fastest swimming still in their future; Rowdy was that kind of athlete.”
“Coach Reese started recruiting me hard my senior year because I guess he saw something not many others did,” says Gaines. “He called weekly, and after the Florida high school championships that year, I flew up to Auburn. As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I loved the school, the team, the family atmosphere and the whole way of life in Auburn.”
Eddie made Gaines’s dream come true when he offered Gaines a scholarship to swim at Auburn, and Gaines gladly accepted.
“I knew Rowdy was special,” says Eddie. “He got faster and faster, and he was a great racer who just wouldn’t lose. The potential was definitely there, and while I was recruiting him, I told his grandmother that I thought he could be an Olympian; I have never told anybody else that since.”
In 1978 Eddie left Auburn for the University of Texas (where he still coaches) and the legendary (late) Coach Richard Quick took over the Auburn program. Gaines also went through a growth spurt shooting up from 5’9” to 6’1” and gaining 40 pounds through workouts in the weight room and the pool. And just as Eddie predicted, Gaines qualified for four events in the 1980 Olympics and was an overwhelming favorite to bring home the gold in every one of them.
Then, just weeks before flying to Moscow, the United States boycotted the games, eliminating any possibility for Olympic gold for the heralded world champion.
“It was very disappointing, but I did understand, and I supported President (Jimmy) Carter’s decision,” says Gaines.
In 1981, Gaines graduated from Auburn, and since there were no professional swimming careers, he walked away from the sport. He returned to Winter Haven to work in his father’s gas station and found himself, understandably, depressed about the “could’ve beens” and missing the chance to fulfill his dream to be an Olympian. His father continuously encouraged his son to get out of his funk and get back in the water. A year after graduation, Gaines did exactly that.
For the next two years, Gaines trained with the U.S. swimming assistant coach, Randy Reese (brother of Eddie). His passion returned, and he picked up right where he left off in 1980, winning world championships, breaking records and qualifying for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
However, this time, at 25 years old (an old man in swim years), Gaines was no longer considered the favorite in the three events for which he qualified: 100 freestyle and both the 400 freestyle and medley relays. He entered the games as the underdog, many believing he missed his chance for gold in 1980.
“Rowdy was always very driven and a fierce competitor. It didn’t matter who he was swimming against, he was not going to let them win,” says Eddie.
And again, the coach was right. Gaines peaked at the right time and became a household word winning the gold medal in the 100 freestyle race, the 400 medley relay and as the anchor of the 400 freestyle relay.
“I was so fortunate to be able to come back to the sport I love, qualify again for the Olympic games and live out my dream of Olympic gold,” says Gaines. “Though I would have loved to have competed in 1980, I have no regrets for myself. I do still hurt sometimes for those athletes who never got a second chance to be an Olympian.”
Every aspect of Gaines’s swimming career came to a screeching halt in 1991, when Gaines began feeling fluish and tingly. His symptoms worsened rapidly, and his wife Judy got him to a hospital where he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barŕe Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system until muscles cannot be used at all, resulting in paralysis. Gaines spent the next six weeks in intensive care and the next six months regaining his strength using the form of exercise he knew best-swimming.
“Doctors told me that my athletic strength, fierce competitiveness and determination were major factors in my having a complete recovery,” he said. “Today, I am completely healed, and I have no side effects or symptoms from the syndrome.”
Miraculously, a year after his initial diagnosis, Gaines competed in the World Championships. He did not even place, but the fact that he was competing again was one of the greatest victories of his life.
Unlike most Olympic swimmers, Gaines found or created opportunities to remain active in the sport to which he had given so much of his life. Over the past 30 years, he has commentated for NBC Sports and ESPN, covering national, international and Olympic swimming competitions; for the past 19 years, he has coached and mentored young swimmers at Auburn summer swim camps on the Plains, and he has continued to swim competitively. In March of this year, Gaines accepted a job with the Central Florida YMCA to resurrect and revitalize its youth swimming program. He will model the program after SwimMAC Carolina, a thriving swim program built by another Auburn swim champion and former AU swim coach, David Marsh.
Gaines’s life is one of perseverance, victory and inspiration. From trying every sport offered until he found one he loved-and was good at-to not giving up on his dream to be an Olympic gold medalist, even when others did, to recovering from a debilitating disease to swim again, Gaines will forever be a world-class champion.