Film Review: Rowdy — Documentary on Rowdy Gaines

Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

By Andy Ross

On Monday night, SEC Network aired “Rowdy,” an hour-long feature documentary by ESPN’s Hannah Storm. The documentary highlighted Gaines’ career in the 1980’s, growing up in Florida, swimming at Auburn for Eddie Reese and Richard Quick, missing out on competing in the 1980 Olympics, and ultimately winning an Olympic gold in 1984. Rowdy was a great refresher on Rowdy Gaines’s swimming career and was a very well-done documentary.

Watch excerpts of the film here.

Best Moments

Archived Footage

It’s almost impossible to find any non-Olympic footage from before 2006 on YouTube. Rowdy showed footage from the NCAA Championships in his career as well as the 1978 World Championships and the 1980 Olympic Trials. It’s always fun to watch how much swimming has evolved over time and what fast swimming looked like forty plus years ago.

Rowdy’s passion

One thing that everyone knows about Rowdy is how much he loves the sport of swimming. It’s not hard to see that when listening to him call a swimming race at the Olympics or even a Pro Swim Series meet. Rowdy loves swimming, and it definitely showed in this documentary. When standing behind the blocks at the current USC pool, home of the 1984 Olympics, Rowdy still got emotional reliving the 100 free final from over thirty years prior.

It seemed like Rowdy was always pumping his fists after every big race in the documentary. Whether it was anchoring a relay at the SEC Championships or anchoring a relay to close out the 1984 Olympics, Rowdy would always be celebrating like it was a big deal. That is the passion that we still see from Rowdy in the broadcast booth, and it was good for the younger generations who weren’t alive in the 1980’s to see where Rowdy’s passion comes from.

1980 Heartbreak

It’s very difficult to explain the heartbreak of the 1980 Olympic boycott to someone who wasn’t alive then (including myself), but this documentary perfectly conveyed the emotions of the athletes who didn’t get to compete in Moscow. Can you imagine if Trump pulled everyone out of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? It would crush so many athlete’s dreams who were peaking at the right time to try to compete in Tokyo. Rowdy was one of those athletes in 1980.

The boycott of 1980 almost dilutes Rowdy Gaines’ career because he will always be known as the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free. But what if he could have competed in Moscow? He might be known as the Olympic gold medalist in TWO events, not just one. If he didn’t decide to keep swimming towards 1984, Rowdy’s swimming career would get forgotten over time and would become one of the greatest “what if” stories in swimming. Luckily for Rowdy’s sake, he kept swimming and got to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Lull of life after swimming

Rowdy initially retired after his senior year in 1981, claiming he did not have it in him to chase another Olympics in 1984. There was no professional swimming until later in the decade, and only amateurs could compete in the Olympics, until that rule was abolished in 1986. So the idea of swimming after college in 1981 was unheard of. Until Rowdy’s dad told him that he had it in him to go for gold in 1984.

But after the 1981 NCAA’s, Rowdy talked about how hard it was to find himself after swimming was over, something that a lot of athletes have experienced after college. How do you get a job? Where do you get a job? Do I have enough money to support myself? Rowdy perfectly encapsulated that lost feeling that an athlete can get after they are done with college and it’s time to move on in to the real world.

But Rowdy ultimately decided to come back and pursue another Olympic dream, after the recommendation of his father. Since he couldn’t make money as a professional, he had to work obscure jobs to make ends meet and to support himself. The film does a great job of showing how hard it was to support yourself as an Olympic athlete in the 1980’s.

Rowdy and Joan Jett

Wait this actually happened? If only social media was around in 1984.

Rowdy apparently met rock star Joan Jett and the two “hung out a couple times” after the 1984 Olympics, perfectly showing the celebrity status Rowdy took on after Los Angeles, and the benefits one gets after winning an Olympic gold medal.

Who won the movie?

Hannah Storm

Hands down. This was such a well-directed, well-edited movie and it told a great story. There were no dull spots, no “I can skip this” moments. It moved at a great pace and told the story in a very effective way.

Storm chose a great subject in Rowdy Gaines, too. Gaines had one of the most underrated swimming careers and she did a fantastic job at telling Rowdy’s life story.

The point of documentaries is to find stories that have fallen through the cracks of public knowledge, and to bring them back into relevancy and refresh people’s minds of why this story is important. Storm did a great job of telling us why Rowdy Gaines is important to the sport of swimming as well as how great he really was.

It was mentioned above, but Rowdy’s career may be completely forgotten if he doesn’t compete in Los Angeles in 1984. There isn’t a lot of footage on YouTube of swimming in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I’m sure I’m not the only person who didn’t realize how good Rowdy actually was.

The documentary perfectly blended heartbreak, redemption, triumph, politics, and many other qualities into a great film, and Hannah Storm deserves recognition for this.

Charles Barkley

Any documentary with an interview from Charles Barkley is a can’t miss, even if Barkley is on screen for less than five minutes. It seems any documentary that has to do with anything about Auburn Athletics, Barkley always has to make an appearance, and he never fails. He just makes great television and he delivered perfectly here.

Richard Quick

Is there any coach out there better than the late Richard Quick? When viewing this, I forgot that Eddie Reese was the coach at Auburn when Rowdy was a freshman. When Reese was on his way out and took a job at the University of Texas, a lot of Auburn swimmers followed him to Austin, and Rowdy wanted to join suit. But who was Reese’s replacement? One of the greatest coaches of all-time in Richard Quick.

Auburn really hit the lottery with hiring Quick right after Eddie. Quick was hired in the fall of 1978 and helped coach Rowdy to be arguably the best swimmer in the world in 1980, alongside the likes of Soviet distance swimmer Vladimir Salnikov.

Quick accompanied Rowdy to the 1984 Olympics as a member of the USA Swimming staff, and Quick was on staff for every United States Olympic team until 2004.


Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Very well done! Props to Hannah Storm ??‍♂️?

3 years ago

The movie made me cry and motivated at the same time.


Go Rowdy!!! ?

3 years ago

Class guy – Tks u for u support of swim across America – I was on the boat with u few years back in Larchmont – was an honor ?

3 years ago

Damn, missed it. ?

Julie Gipson
3 years ago

Wonderfully done. Congratulations Rowdy.

3 years ago

The 1980 boycott was even worse back then than a 2020 boycott would be now. In those days, when swimmers still had to be amateurs, a successful Olympics was the only chance that swimmers had to cash in and actually make some post-Olympics money through product endorsements and various appearance fees. There was no corporate sponsorship of athletes like there is today, so you could not really go on past your early 20s as a swimmer unless you came from a wealthy family or had a graduate student stipend. Plus, with World Championship meets only occurring every four years in those days too, American swimmers had very little time in the spotlight and couldn’t compete at three or four Olympics. So the 1980 boycott ended up costing many swimmers the ability to turn their success in the pool into a moderate living.

If we were to boycott in 2020 it would be very hard on today’s swimmers, but the Caleb Dressels and Katie Ladeckys and Michael Andrews and Simone Manuels of the world would continue to receive their USA Swimming stipends and their sponsorship money and they would continue to work towards the 2024 Olympics.