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Olympic champ Gaines plunges into Pillars series

Posted: May 7, 2012 - 12:03am

Masters swimmer Rowdy Gaines has maintained his love of the sport and drive to compete three decades after winning three Olympic gold medals.

“It’s the continued passion,” Gaines said.

Rowdy lives and trains in Lake Mary, Fla. outside of Orlando. He’d recently returned to his home state with his family.

“Born and raised, third generation Floridian,” Gaines said of himself. “I’ve lived all over the place, but I’m back home now and really enjoying it.”

Growing up in Florida, Gaines realized early that he wanted to be an athlete. Becoming one was less a certain thing.

Before he started swimming at 17 years old, Gaines tried his hand at five different sports including baseball, basketball, golf and tennis.

They day he tried out for the swim team, Gaines said he visited the library to research the events in track and field.

“Just in case I didn’t make the swim team,” Gaines said. “I kind of kept persevering.”

Within 2 1/2 years, Gaines had broken a world swimming record.

“So things developed really fast,” Gaines said.

“The day I started (swimming), I knew it was going to be the sport than I excelled in,” Gaines said. “I didn’t think about going to the Olympics, I just wanted to be good at (a sport).”

In the early 1980s, Gaines said, swimmers didn’t typically compete beyond their college years.

“There was no money in swimming,” Gaines said.

His fastest year of swimming, his junior year in college, coincided with the 1980 Olympics.

“My times would have won five gold medals,” Gaines said.

A year earlier the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This act spurred 65 countries, including the United States, to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

“To have that taken away …” Gaines said, “it’s not like it happens every year. “

Gaines retired after his senior year. Retirement, it turned out, didn’t settle well with Gaines.

“I missed the sport and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to make it, win, lose or draw,” Gaines said.

While there were bumps along the road getting back on top of the swimming world, it worked out in 1984, Gaines said. He won three gold medals for the U.S. in the 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter free relay and the 400-meter medley.

“So a four-year journey turned into an eight-year journey,” Gaines said.

In 1984, gaines was the third oldest swimmer at 25-years old — the average age of swimmers in recent Olympics, Gaines said.

Gaines retired again in 1984.

“I kind of went into the real world,” Gaines said. “I met my wife and got married and have four children. So things are different.”

Gaines said he sees athletes that retire and have a tough time dealing with retirement. They are hyper focused, “like tunnel vision,” Gaines said, for years.

“Part of you feels like you don’t know what to do with your life,” Gaines said.

Gaines said he feels lucky to have competed when he did. Because of the 1980 boycott, 1984 was an Olympic event the U.S. was “really hungry for,” Gaines said. “And because we had it in America, it was very popular.”

Gaines found his new fame could open doors and keep him in the sport he loves.

This summer, Gaines will call the swim events at his sixth Olympic Games for NBC.

“It’s great to be a part of the Olympic movement and be a part of my sport almost 30 years later,” he said.

At 53, Gaines is a multiple-world-record-holding masters swimmer, a husband, father and spokesman for Limu, a performance drink.

“I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing a lot of the things I have to do in life,” Gaines said. “But the No. 1 priority is my family.”

Gaines said his sport and his work requires he travel up to two weeks a month, something his wife and kids have gotten used to, he said.

“I have a wonderful wife who’s been on this 30-year journey with me.”

World-class performance requires dedicated training — and many lunch hours and weekends.

“I work for a great company that supports my swimming,” Gaines said.

Gaines said his success would not have happened without the support of many people throughout his career. After winning three golds in 1984, “I gave one medal to my mom, one to my dad and one to my coach,” Gaines said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Three decades on from his Olympic glory, Gaines isn’t clocking the 100-meter and relay times of his youth. However, he has broken more than a dozen masters records. He said he now sets his goals within the age brackets in which he competes.

“When I move into the next age group I’ll have a whole new set of goals,” Gaines said. “That is the way I stay motivated now. Plus I love to swim. I love to be in the water.”

Gaines suffered another set back in the 1990s when he was struck by a rare and serious illness, Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

“I was walking around one day and the next day I’m completely paralyzed,” Gaines said. “We all have peaks and valleys,” Gaines said.

The champion competitors he knows are the ones “who can live through the good times, but also the ones who live through the valleys,” Gaines said.

Recovering from paralysis and going on to break world records is not unique to Gaines, he said.

“I’m not a robot, I’ve made mistakes and erred before,” Gaines said. “I was still able to come out on top,” and others can too, he said. “All of us have dreams, whether you are six or 60. I am sort of living proof that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams.”

The No. 1 thing Gaines attributes to his long career?

“As big a cliché as it is, it is passion,” Gaines said. “Man, you got to have a passion for what you do. I love to train, I love to compete. Every day? No. But it’s the continued passion.”

For more information about Rowdy Gaines, visit www.rowdygaines.com.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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