Why You Should Watch the Documentary “Rowdy” Before Summer Nationals

On Monday, June 16th, SEC Network premiered the ESPN-led documentary “Rowdy,” a 50-minute documentary which brings to light the successes and hardships of swimming’s most recognizable voice, Rowdy Gaines. Directed by journalist and television broadcaster Hannah Storm, this short film is one that all swimmers, swim parents, and swim nerds should watch before the 2018 Phillips 66 Summer Nationals kick off in Irvine, CA next Wednesday (July 25th).

  • If you missed it on first run, it will re-air (Eastern Time) on August 3rd at noon, August 6th at 6AM, August 6th at 8PM, August 8th at 10PM, and September 4th at 8PM. SEC Stories aren’t available on demand on the ESPN App, so set your DVRs if you want to watch it!

Born Ambrose Gaines IV, Rowdy’s father Buddy Gaines started calling his son by his famous nickname when he was just an infant. The Gaines family lived on the water in Winter Haven, FL, and during the 1960’s Rowdy’s mother was one of the “top five” water skiers in the world, according to Buddy Gaines, as she was capable of executing the swivel swan on the water skis. In fact, both of Rowdy’s parents skied professionally at Cypress Gardens.

Despite his proximity to the water, Rowdy did not start swimming competitively himself until 1977 when he was a junior in high school. Though his first-ever race was as a member of the ‘E’ relay at a high school swim meet, Rowdy won the 200 yard freestyle and got silver in the 100 yard freestyle at the 1977 Florida High School State Championships, and was named Winter Haven High School Athlete of the Year.

Following this success, Rowdy went on to swim at Auburn University for legendary coach Eddie Reese. After one year under Reese’s tutelage, Rowdy went on to break two relay world records at the 1978 World Championships, and pick up a silver in the 200 meter freestyle with a 1-2 finish behind fellow American and Auburn teammate Bill Forrester. Though Reese left in 1978 to take his current post at the University of Texas, Gaines remained at Auburn where he continued to improve at an incredible rate under International Swimming Hall of Fame coaching inductee Richard Quick.

Regarding the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Rowdy said “it was a ridiculous decision” as it neither convinced Russia to leave Afghanistan nor pushed the IOC to move the Olympics to another city. On the contrary, Rowdy states that “Nothing would have been better for us to have gone to those Olympic Games and kick their ass.”

Despite the disappointment of not going to the 1980 Olympic Games, Rowdy continued to compete as an NCAA student-athlete until his eligibility ended in 1981. For the next three years Rowdy trained as an amateur athlete as professional athletes were not allowed in Olympic competition at the time. Though he failed to make the Olympic team in the 200 meter freestyle, Rowdy placed 2nd in the 100 meter freestyle a the 1984 Olympic Trials. Then, as we all know, Rowdy went on to win three gold medals, including one in the 100 meter freestyle, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Following those Olympics Rowdy officially retired from competitive swimming. Now somewhat of a celebrity, Rowdy found himself making regular television appearances and hanging out with the likes of Joan Jett. “I was mid-twenties and single, and it was… quite fun,” remarks Rowdy of his post-Olympic victory lap.

In the summer of 1991 Rowdy was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome and hospitalized for several months. Following this life-changing scare, Rowdy got back in the water and began his career as a masters swimmer. Now, every October in Orlando, FL, Rowdy hosts the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic.

Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, John Naber, Caeleb Dressel, NBC Olympics co-host Dan Hicks, and Auburn and NBA basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley all appear in the documentary. Some notable quotes include:

  • “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given [Rowdy] so much crap over races that he’s called of mine. Going out too fast, saying I’m gonna die, this, that, the other. And I’m like, dude, just watch, just relax.” -Michael Phelps
  • “At Auburn, it’s football, football, football, sprinkle in a little basketball. I’m not gonna sit here and lie to ya, we weren’t going to swim meets. I’ve never been to a swim meet in my life, and if you go back and do your history, we had Coach Quick there, who’s arguably the greatest swimming coach ever, we had two legends walking around us all the time, and we probably have never given them the respect that they deserve.” -Charles Barkley
  • “Michael Phelps is the most important figure in swimming history, but if there’s a 1-A, it’s Rowdy Gaines, because he continuously, tirelessly, endlessly promotes the sport, even when he’s outside of the Olympic pool.” -Dan Hicks
  • “You can tell he’s got a passion for what he does, he gets way too into it.” -Caeleb Dresssel
  • “In five years time my name will be obscure.” –Rowdy Gaines, 1981 NCAA Championships post-race interview

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2 years ago

ESPN does crazy good documentaries.I get the SEC Channel and this might be the only thing on the SEC Channel (Big10 all the way!) I will ever watch. I am old enough to remember the boycott, and I really did forget how the American’s got messed over by a boycott that did absolutely nothing to change the world. I was impressed by his determination and grit and how at 25 he was considered “old” for his sport- again having to do with not being able to be paid to train people needed to get real jobs. I can remember meeting Rowdy back in 1979 or 1980, he was touring with a group of swimmers, when he came to my high… Read more »

Caeleb Dressel Will Win 9 Gold Medals in Tokyo
2 years ago

I wasn’t breathing to my right on the 200 free at a meet a few days ago… I barely barely lost…

2 years ago

I remember meeting Rowdy at Terry Schroeder’s Swim and Water Polo Camp in the late 80s. A great guy who inspired me by comparing my butterfly to Pablo Morales’ (and with his story in Sixteen Days of Glory, which everyone should watch). For years after that, the camp ran an ad in Swimming World featuring a photo of the two of us. One of my proudest little brushes with swimming history.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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