Catching Up: Rowdy Gaines is Gearing Up for Another Olympic Games Behind the Microphone

Rowdy Gaines
Courtesy: Peter Bick

Catching Up: Rowdy Gaines is Gearing Up for Another Olympic Games Behind the Microphone

In our latest edition of “Catching Up,” it seemed an appropriate time to visit with Rowdy Gaines, a man who has worn many hats during his enduring role in the sport. Gaines recently wrapped up broadcasting the NCAA Championships for ESPN, and will now shift his focus to the push toward the Olympic Games in Paris.

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There are a few guarantees within the swimming competition at each Olympic Games. World records will be broken. A few surprises will get fans talking. Team USA will field a powerful squad. And Rowdy Gaines will be a nightly part—at least in the United States—of living-room gatherings or swim-club viewing parties.

Gaines is one of those rare individuals who has carved out a place in history as a dual-role star. During his competitive days, he was one of the premier freestylers in the world, an athlete who bounced back from heartache to capture Olympic glory. In his second career, as a television analyst for NBC Sports (among other network opportunities), Gaines has become the Voice of the Sport, and is preparing to cover his ninth Olympiad at this summer’s Games in Paris.

The Hall of Famer, plain and simple, has long been a key thread in the fabric of the swimming world.

A SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY

This summer will mark the 40th anniversary of the most iconic moment of Gaines’ career. It was a day that arrived four years after the Auburn University star had his initial Olympic dreams wiped out by United States President Jimmy Carter’s decision to have the U.S. boycott the Olympics in Moscow.

Expected to contend for multiple titles at the 1980 Games, the intersection of sports and politics dealt Gaines—and hundreds of other athletes—a gut punch. The work he had logged in preparation for the Moscow Games went for naught, and retirement soon called. At least for a stretch, it appeared as if Gaines would not receive his Olympic opportunity.

But rather than exit competitive waters via a decision not his own, Gaines cut his retirement short to make a push at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. While nothing was guaranteed, Gaines felt he owed it to himself to make a charge at a home Olympiad.

It was a great call.

At the 1984 Olympics, Gaines helped the United States to gold medals in the 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay. But it was his performance in the 100 freestyle that made Gaines a legend, an Olympic champion for life.

Rowdy Gaines

Rowdy Gaines. Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

Racing to a time of 49.80, Gaines captured the Olympic crown ahead of Australian Mark Stockwell (50.24) and Sweden’s Per Johansson (50.31). The key for Gaines was a spectacular start, one made possible when his coach, Richard Quick, alerted him that the starter was quick with the gun. With this knowledge, Gaines fired off the blocks and never looked back.

Years later, Gaines can vividly recall the events of July 31, from his chat with Quick to the exuberance he felt upon being crowned an Olympic champ. It’s also hard to believe it’s been four decades since he listened to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after an Olympic gold medal was placed around his neck.

“Part of me feels like it was yesterday,” Gaines said. “I can remember specific details of the race. But another part of me feels like that was another person. I’m not sure how I did all that.

“It would have been impossible without Richard Quick. He had such a knack for picking up things to help his athletes. But more than a coach, he was always a confidant and friend.

“That was such an important time in the Olympic movement. We were coming off the boycott of 1980, and our country was starving for the Olympics. And patriotism was at an all-time high. There are definitely memories.”

THE NEXT CHAPTER

As well known as Gaines is for his exploits in the pool, which include world-record performances, he might be best known for his years as a television analyst—most notably at the Olympic Games. Gaines worked his first Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona and has not missed one since. When he calls the Paris Games this summer, it will mark his ninth Games.

Through the years, he has also served as a regular voice for the NCAA Championships, major college conference champs, the World Championships, Duel in the Pool, United States Nationals, USA Swimming Pro Series and the International Swimming League. If there’s a competition of significance, there’s a good bet Gaines will be part of the announcing team.

“The first and foremost thing I try to bring to my announcing is passion,” Gaines said. “People can question some of my knowledge and my language or grammar, but they can’t question my passion. I hope that’s something that comes across because it’s genuine and I love doing it. I have the best seat in the house.”

Gaines’ passion undoubtedly comes through on telecasts, his voice frequently rising an octave or two. There is pure joy in his approach.

Rowdy Gaines / Dan HicksThis summer will be a busy one for Gaines, as he’ll call the United States Olympic Trials from Indianapolis in June with longtime NBC partner Dan Hicks. The tandem will then shift their focus to Paris and the latest edition of the Olympic Games.

Through the years, Gaines and Hicks have developed a tight relationship—on and off camera. They have an undeniable chemistry, and truly enjoy working with one another.

“I feel incredibly blessed to be able to go to Paris and call my ninth Olympic Games for NBC,” Gaines said. “They have been incredible to work with, and the entire team at the network has been very supportive of our sport through the years. I will never take for granted the opportunity to be a part of a broadcast of the greatest sporting event in the world.

“Dan is not only the ultimate pro, but also an incredibly dear friend and mentor. There is no way that we would be able to do eight Olympic Games together without being in sync. I’m very fortunate to call him my partner.”

GIVING BACK

As an Olympic champion and longtime fixture behind the microphone, Gaines is one of the best-known personalities in swimming. To his credit, he has used that identity to give back. Gaines has routinely traveled the country providing clinics for clubs and sparking interest in the sport, in addition to providing developing athletes with a few technique tips and motivational words.

More important, Gaines has been at the forefront of the importance of water safety. Since first joining forces with the USA Swimming Foundation in 2003, Gaines has been an ambassador for the organization. His primary focus has been on the importance of swim lessons, and how they can save lives in the fight against drowning.

Really, Gaines’ love for the water—and his many roles—has made him, perhaps, the greatest promoter swimming could imagine.

“I could never give back to the sport more than it has given me,” Gaines said. “It changed my life in so many ways. I will stack swimming against any other sport for the values that are taught every single day. For that, I will always be grateful.”

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James Sheehan
James Sheehan
15 days ago

Excellent article on Rowdy. Attending the Olympic Games in person is great but I always missed Rowdy and Dan calling the races as it’s not available in foreign countries. No one is better than those two.

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