Rowdy Gaines started swimming for 5 different reasons: football, basketball, baseball, golf and tennis.
Those were the high school sports teams he tried out for, though he didn’t make any of them. As a high school junior, swimming was all that was left. Luckily, he made the cut. A week later, he swam in his first meet, in the last relay event, anchoring what they called the “E” team, the worst relay group on the team. But something happened. He outsplit everyone on it and his life changed forever.
He excelled at swimming partly because he was a natural, but also because he loved it. The pool was where he belonged, and he spent the next two years completely committed to the sport. He got up early for practice and then went to school, and after school he went back to practice. He worked on perfecting turns, starts, strokes and kicks. He spent weekends practicing and traveling to compete in meets. He had one goal, and it was to be in the Olympics.
After graduation, he was offered a scholarship to swim for Auburn University, and it was there, in his sophomore year, he met the man who would make him an Olympian. The years at Auburn were some of the most amazing of his life; he became an all American, an NCAA champion and he was world swimmer of the year twice. It was at Auburn he became the fastest human being in the water, and heavily favored to medal multiple times in Moscow in 1980. His journey to the podium had begun, and he was tenacious. He swam and swam and swam. He was ready.
Somewhere along the way, politics and sports collided, and the Olympians of 1980 became Olympians with nowhere to compete. Some left their sports and returned to everyday life. Some tried to return to sports, but 1984 was a long way off and funding for training was difficult to obtain. One in particular bitterly turned his back, but when his father told him there was life after the Olympics, he realized his father was right.
He followed his coach to Texas, and he started over. He worked even harder the second time, because by 1984 he would be 25 and over the hill. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he hadn’t swum a best time in years, he was the underdog of the team and no one expected anything out of him. He was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. He anchored two relay teams to gold, and he took gold in the event he claimed as his own, the 100-meter freestyle. At last, he climbed the podium.
Even for Olympians, there is life after the Olympics. He coached swim teams; managed a health club and started working as a broadcaster for the sport he loved. He continued swimming, setting numerous world records as a masters swimmer. After a meet one day, he noticed tingling in his feet and legs and in his hands. The next day he was in the hospital, completely paralyzed. He had contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare and incurable disorder which causes the immune system to attack the nerves and paralyze the body.
Three months later, he went home and fought to learn everything he had ever known how to do. He learned to walk. He learned how to pick up a fork. He learned to write. He learned how to button his shirt. Eventually, he learned to swim. A year later, he was back in the blocks, winning the Japan World Masters Championships and setting new records in his signature events. Two years later, he qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials at age 35. Instead of going on to compete, he stepped aside and took up residence in the NBC broadcast booth for his second hitch as Olympic swimming commentator, where he returns every four years.
Today he works for a private company in a public job. As executive director of LIMU’s Rowdy’s Kidz outreach program, he talks to kids, mentors them and spreads the message that championship comes not from the outside but from the inside, and that dreams can come true if you believe in yourself.
Oh, and he’s still in the blocks, still setting world records, still a champion, and still making dreams come true. To book Olympic Speaker Rowdy Gaines call Executive Speakers Bureau 901-754-9404.