8 Facts About Olympic Swimming Icon Rowdy Gaines
If swimming is your favorite Olympic event, you should be familiar with the voice of Rowdy Gaines. He has served as NBC’s Olympic swimming analyst for over 20 years, and before that he made a name for himself by leading the U.S. swim team to victory in 1984. Here are some facts you may not have known about the sports icon.
1. HIS NICKNAME COMES FROM A TV WESTERN.
Ambrose "Rowdy" Gaines IV was born in Winter Haven, Florida on February 17, 1959. His boisterous nickname, given to him by his father, was taken from Clint Eastwood’s character in the TV series Rawhide, which premiered the same year Gaines was born.
2. HE (UNSUCCESSFULLY) TRIED OTHER SPORTS BEFORE SWIMMING.
It took Gaines a while to discover his knack for swimming. Before finding his element in the pool, he tried his hand at a few land-based sports but was too slow, short, or clumsy to excel at any of them. Football made Gaines feel especially "intimidated" as a kid. When he finally got into swimming at age 17, he found that the solitary sport was a perfect fit for his reserved personality.
3. HE WAS TRAINED BY A COACHING LEGEND.
Before Gaines rose to Olympic stardom, he was trained by the excellently-named Richard Quick. Quick worked as Auburn University’s swim coach while Gaines attended the school on a swimming scholarship. Quick would later go on to coach the U.S. swim teams in three Olympic games and claim more major college swimming titles than any other Division I coach.
4. HE PEAKED AT THE WORST TIME.
By 1980, while just emerging from his teens, Gaines was already setting world records and winning medals at international competitions. The hype surrounding him was so intense that Swimming World Magazine named him World Swimmer of the Year [PDF]. He was favored to secure five gold medals at that year’s summer Olympics in Moscow, but the U.S. boycott kept him out of the competition.
5. HE LED THE 1984 TEAM TO VICTORY.
Even though he was reportedly past his "peak" by the time the Los Angeles games rolled around in 1984, Gaines still managed to blow the other athletes out of the water. He earned his team three gold medals and won more races than any swimmer in the competition. He helped the team set new records in the 4x100 meter medley relay and 4x100m freestyle relay events, and broke his own record in 100 meter freestyle.
6. HE WAS TEMPORARILY PARALYZED.
In 1991 Gaines’s athletic pursuits came to a halt. The swimming champion was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks part of their peripheral nervous system. The disease can lead to permanent paralysis, but in Gaines’s case this symptom was temporary. He made a full recovery after two months of treatment, eventually integrating swimming into his physical therapy routine. "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.”
That period proved to be a minor blip in Gaines's career. Just a few years later he was making waves again as the oldest swimmer to qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympic Trials at the age of 35.
7. HE’S BECOME AN ICONIC VOICE OF THE OLYMPICS.
Despite qualifying to compete in the 1996 summer games, Gaines instead chose to contribute his talents as a commentator. His career as an announcer for NBC’s Olympic coverage began in 1992 with the Barcelona Olympics. He has since acted as the "Voice of Swimming" for seven Olympic games, including this year’s events in Rio de Janeiro.
8. HE’S STILL SETTING RECORDS.
Gaines’s retirement from the Olympics didn’t mark his retirement from swimming. In 2009, he broke the 50 meter and 100 meter freestyle times for the men’s 50 to 54 age group at the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic. He broke the record for the 100 meter freestyle for his age group again two years later at a competition in Japan.