What Doesn't Rowdy Gaines Do?
Olympian, coach and announcer
Rowdy Gaines (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1995. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:
For the Record: 1984 Olympic Games: gold (100-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter medley relay, 4x100-meter freestyle relay); eight world records: (1-100-meter freestyle, 2-200-meter freestyle, 2-4x100-meter freestyle relay, 3-4x100-meter medley relay); 1978 World Championships: gold (4x100-meter freestyle relay, 4x200-meter freestyle relay), silver (200-meter freestyle); 1982 World Championships: gold (4x100-meter medley relay, 4x100-meter freestyle relay), silver (100- and 200-meter freestyle); 1979 Pan American Games: gold (200-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter freestyle relay, 4x200-meter freestyle relay); 1983 Pan American Games: gold (100-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter freestyle relay, 4x100-meter medley relay, 4x200-meter freestyle relay), bronze (200-meter freestyle); 17 U.S. National Championships: nine Outdoor, eight Indoor; eight NCAA Championships: (50-, 100-, 200-yard freestyle, 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle relays).
Although he retired in 1980 after setting the 100-meter freestyle world record and, realizing there would be no Olympics for him because of the 1980 boycott, Rowdy Gaines decided he was not finished and came back 1 1/2 years later to win the 1982 U.S. National Championship High Point Award. He silvered in both the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyles at the 1982 Quayaquil World Championships as well as winning on all three relay teams. Known as the "old man" of the 1984 Olympics, he won the 100-meter freestyle and was a gold medal winner on the 4x100-meter medley and freestyle relays. During his career spanning 1977-1984, he set eight world records.
Dedication sparks Gaines's comeback (by Patrick Connors, published in the Tampa Tribune, July 16, 1992)
Former Olympian overcomes nerve disorder with the same determination he used to win three gold medals.
Rowdy makes remarkable gains!
Rowdy Gaines has done the president handshake thing: Carter, Reagan and Bush.
He's also done an Annie Liebowitz shoot—he and Steve Lundquist jumping off a dock for an acclaimed American Express advertisement.
He's done other national ads, made countless public appearances and has been on magazine covers. The city of Winter Haven named its swimming complex after its favorite son.
All because he won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
But ask Rowdy Gaines about one of the most thrilling moments of his career and he likely will tell you about the time he beat Jim Lilley in the 100-meter freestyle this past April (1992). No one has ever mistaken Lilley for Mark Stockwell, the Australian that Gaines nipped for the gold in the 100 free at the 1984 Games. Lilley, a flight attendant for United Air Lines, is merely a serious recreational swimmer.
But this past year Gaines has learned to appreciate the little victories in life.
Last August, Gaines was near death, paralyzed below the neck due to a rare nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre' syndrome that can cause permanent paralysis in the muscles of the trunk, arms and face.
It was an amazing transformation for somebody whose fair hair, white teeth and muscle ripped torso always seemed like the perfect picture of health. In fact, Gaines manages a health and swim club in Honolulu, his current residence.
"I never really thought about dying, but the doctors talked to me about it," Gaines, said. "It was a possibility. My initial reaction was pity, to feel sorry for myself. But as the condition got worse, that turned into hope.”
"I realized that I was going to have to completely dedicate myself to getting better. Swimmers know a few things about dedication."
Gaines remained hospitalized for about a month, receiving a treatment called plasmapheresis in which his blood is removed, cleansed and then restored. He lost 20 pounds from a matchstick frame.
Slowly he regained movement in his limbs, but his strength was completely zapped. The second part of his treatment would be, of all things, learning how to swim again.
Gaines always has been a sprinter, dominating the 100 free from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.
This time, though, Gaines knew his recovery would be more than just a mad dash. The typical recovery time for patients afflicted with Guillain-Barre' syndrome is at least two years.
That's when Gaines began sizing up the competition in his swim club.
"When I started swimming for therapy, I would swim in the same lanes as the 60 and 70 year old swimmers," Gaines said. "Slowly I worked my way down the pool. I'd spend a couple of weeks swimming in a lane with the 50-year olds, then the 40-year olds, and so on.
"You want to talk about the word comeback, this was it.
There's this one guy, Jim Lilley, who was the best guy on the team and a very good swimmer, period. We finally raced one day in practice, and as soon as I beat him, that's when I felt for the first time like I was back.
It was really great. Everybody was patting me on the back like I had just won a major meet, and it kind of was."
Last week Gaines took another major step toward recovery when he won the 50 free and the 100 free in the U.S. Masters swim meet in his age group (30-35). His time in the 100 was 52.5 seconds, less than three seconds slower than his gold medal time eight years ago.
"It feels good to finally start believing in my body again," Gaines said. "I had doubts that I would ever come all the way back. It kind of feels like I have a new body."
There is still a tingle in his fingertips and toes. The ends of the nerves are the last things to heal, he said.
He was in Winter Haven last week to speak at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and left immediately for a week at the beach with his family. This week he will be on a plane to Barcelona where he will do commentary for NBC's Olympic coverage.
Once again Gaines's schedule is hectic, and that's healthy. But this time it is not business as usual.
"Swimming is not big deal," Gaines said. "But it's amazing the lessons of life it can teach you. Dedication and determination. Those are two things I'll always live with."