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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4 years ago

Fantastic documentary. I remember him well at the ’84 Olympic Trials and so many saying he was “too old” to be doing it. I’m so glad he paved the way for so much, including swim life after college. As one of the narrators says, the two most important swimmers ever are 1) Michael Phelps because he brought it to the world stage in a way never done before and at 1a) Rowdy Gaines for not only his comeback but also his tireless and eloquent advocacy for the sport.

4 years ago

The decision to meaninglessly boycott the 1980 Olympics was an incredibly stupid idea at the time and has only looked worse as the years have gone by. It’s particularly true in swimming. In 1980, the Olympics were really the only major international competition that swimmers got any exposure from. Also, in 1980 it wasn’t possible to be a pro swimmer. As a result, the decision to boycott the Olympics essentially destroyed the swimming career of many world class swimmers. Many of those swimmers deserve to be seen as legends but had their careers compromised. Rowdy was at his peak in 1980 and would have dominated in Moscow. He still had a good 1984, but his career really should have been… Read more »

Reply to  David
4 years ago

It was just a huge bummer for all the great USA swimmers at the time.

But the East Germans were doping and getting away with it, so the competition would have been tainted. With the boycott and the doping, it was a dark time for international swimming.

4 years ago

Rowdy is a great guy with a good story. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hate his commentary.

4 years ago

how can we watch it? link says it does not work in my region?

Gator chomp
4 years ago

Anyone have another link that actually works for me? It says it’s not available in my region.

4 years ago

War Eagle Rowdy! War. Damn. Eagle.

Reply to  Swimstats
4 years ago

I was a sprint freestyler in the late 1970’s-mid-1980’s , Rowdy was the man. Period. I still feel the anger within the swimming community over the 1980 boycott. Rowdy has become one of the greatest ambassadors to a sport that needs all the positive vibes it can get. Still not football or basketball – but swimming is now considered a “cool” sport for kids to participate in and Rowdy has played a role in that.

4 years ago

I’ll pass….Michael’s quote basically sums it up for me

Reply to  Ervin
4 years ago

Too bad that is the only quote from MP used in this story. I thought he had tongue in cheek a bit there, otherwise paid high compliments to RG in the documentary.

4 years ago

Not a fan, so I won’t be watching his documentary.

After all the years he’s done commentary, you would think he would get good at it. Sadly, his commentary often makes no sense, so I have to mute it to enjoy watching the coverage.

25 free champ
Reply to  marklewis
4 years ago

I was going to respond… but the downvotes say enough.

Justin Thompson
Reply to  marklewis
4 years ago

Obviously didn’t read the article, There’s much more to rowdy than commentary. There’s a time and a place for the cheap shots about his commentating skills and this isn’t one of them. This is a historical look at one of the great swimming personalities of our time. You don’t see a swimming documentary often let alone on ESPN. Celebrate a fellow swimmer and show some respect for the sport.

Reply to  marklewis
4 years ago

It’s easy to not like someone because of their announcing. Heck, I don’t really like Tony Romo when he does football games (oooooooh is it a first doooooooooown?), but Rowdy is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in person and loves to talk swimming and knows a ton! I remember talking to him at NCAAs in Iowa City when Texas put 6 swimmers in the 100 fly A final, he recalled a time when another team put 4 swimmers in the A final in the 400 IM.

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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