It would be fair to call Rowdy Gaines a late bloomer.
“Since junior high, I had tried football, baseball, basketball, tennis and golf, and I was terrible at all of them,” Gaines said. “In February of my junior year [of high school], 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.”
And while Gaines earned an athletic scholarship to Auburn University and became a 22-time NCAA All-American and eight-time NCAA champion, his road to Olympic gold required plenty of patience.
Gaines was in the prime of his career when the United States boycotted the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. Understanding the situation but frustrated with the reality, he quit swimming and worked in his father’s Florida gas station.
One year later, though, Gaines was back in the pool. Although he was getting older, he remained one of the world’s elite freestyle swimmers. In the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Gaines claimed gold in the 100-meter freestyle and swam the anchor legs of the 4×100-meter freestyle and 4×100 medley relays as the Americans took gold in both of those events.
Gaines finished his career with those three Olympic gold medals and 10 world records. In 1991, he recovered from temporary paralysis caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome and in 1996 became the oldest swimmer to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials, though he chose not to compete.
Known as Swimming’s Greatest Ambassador, Gaines has held various positions within the swimming community and he has been a mainstay on American Olympic swimming television broadcasts.