Hanging on was worth effort for Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines

The fallout from the 1980 Olympic boycott was mostly sadness and frustration, but there were some happy-ending stories too -- and none more so than that of Rowdy Gaines. Four years ago last summer, the young swimmer from Florida was primed to be one of the gold medal sensations of the Moscow Games. Gaines stood alone in those days as the world's dominant sprinter -- an almost sure bet for gold in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events plus two more in the relays. But then came the boycott and his hopes, like those of so many others, were dashed.

It was a tremendous blow for a 21-year-old athlete who knew he was at the optimum career stage for his sport. And there were times during the ensuing four years when he came pretty close to packing it all in. But now looking back from the vantage point of a retired double gold medal winner at Los Angeles, he sees the whole experience as ``a blessing in disguise.''

``I felt physically at my peak in 1980 -- and mentally up too,'' he recalls. ``It was tough, really tough. I had a chance for four golds.

``It was a long four years,'' he added. ``There were a lot of peaks and valleys. I almost quit a few times. In fact I actually did retire for six months in 1981 just after I finished college, but I couldn't stay away.

``I felt something was missing in my life. I looked back and realized it was the Olympics. Just to get a chance to compete. It was tugging at me.''

So he came back -- but that wasn't the end of his problems. It's an axiom in world-class swimming that for every day out, it takes a day to get back -- and Gaines says this was definitely true in his case.

Thus it was another six months of gruelling training, until the summer of 1982, before he was in what he considered really top shape again. And even after that there were still times of doubt and questioning. Was he past his peak? Had time passed him by? Might he not make it anyway after all this time and effort?

``I sort of felt that way in the summer of 1983 after the Pan Am Games,'' Gaines recalls. ``I swam really poorly there. It was the first time in such a meet that I didn't improve my times. I didn't even win the 200 -- the event in which I held the world record. I won the 100 and was on three winning relay teams, which sounds OK, but I knew the competition wasn't that strong -- not like it would be in the Olympics.

``For the first time, I felt old. I had doubts. I sat down with my parents, my coaches, and my friends, all of whom really helped me. And in the end, I decided to go for it -- win, lose, or draw -- because otherwise I would never know. Twenty years from now when I looked back, I knew it would be pretty sad to think that I hadn't given it all I had.''

So Rowdy made the big push in the rest of 1983 and the first half of 1984. Even so, he didn't make the team in the 200 (``It was getting a little long for me, and I knew my best shot was at the shorter distance''), but he made it in the 100 and in the relays.

Then, of course, came the magic moment in Los Angeles as Gaines reached back for everything he had to prevail in a thrilling final and win the individual gold medal he had waited so long to capture. Another gold in the 4x100 relay was icing on the cake, putting the finishing touches on a great career.

Since the Olymics, Gaines has worked on various projects in the communications and marketing area (his major at Auburn University) while exploring long-range career options. His recent stop in Boston for this interview was part of a nationwide tour promoting ``Shooting for the Gold,'' a photodocumentary of US Olympic athletes produced by Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc., with all profits earmarked for the American amateur athletic movement. ``I'm doing a lot of speaking and touring for this book,'' he said. ``It's good for me, and it's good for amateur athletics. Once things settle down, I might like to go into an area like broadcasting or sports marketing.''

Would he want to get back into the sport more actively someday, as in coaching?

``It's a possibility,'' he said. ``I wouldn't think so in the next couple of years, but down the road, who knows? I'd never rule anything out.''

The Rowdy Gaines swimming story, of course, began long before the 1984 -- or even the 1980 -- Olympics. (As for the nickname, his proper name is Ambrose Gaines IV, but when he was a little boy his parents started calling him Rowdy after a character played by Clint Eastwood in the old ``Rawhide'' TV show, and the name just stuck. Or, as he puts it: ``Which would you rather be called?'').

Born and brought up in Winter Haven, Fla., Gaines spent much of his boyhood and young manhood involved with water sports of one sort or another.

``The area where I grew up is 70 percent water, so you have to learn how to swim to survive,'' he said. ``I learned to swim before I learned to walk -- literally. We lived on a lake. We had a dock. The water was 10 feet from our house. So it was very important for my parents to toss me in the water at the earliest opportunity and teach me how to swim.''

Despite the early start as a swimmer, Rowdy emerged quite late by world class standards as a competitor.

``Water skiing was the big thing for me as a kid,'' he says. ``I used to water ski all day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I didn't start competing in swimming until I was 17 and a junior in high school.

``It was sort of the thing to do, and I had checked it out as a sophomore, but I was a 98-pound weakling, and when I saw all those big seniors I decided against it. In my junior year, though, I decided to give it a try.''

Gaines didn't exactly burn up the pool right away. In fact, in his first state meet, he finished 16th out of the 16 who qualified for the 200 freestyle final. A year later, though, he won the state championship and got a scholarship to Auburn.

``I remember that feeling,'' he said. ``To me then it was like winning the Olympics. That was surely one of my biggest moments. I shaved my head for that meet -- something I never did again. It was that important to me.''

Among his other big thrills he lists his first NCAA title (in the 50 freestyle as a sophomore); his first world record (in the 200 freestyle in 1980, a mark that stood until broken by West Germany's Michael Gross at the Los Angeles Olympics); and his second one (in the 100 freestyle in 1981, a performance which capped off a big senior year, and a mark -- 49.36 seconds -- which still stands).

And then, of course, there was Los Angeles.

``I've been in two world championships, two Pan Am Games, and a lot of other big meets, but put 'em all together and they don't begin to compare to the feeling in L.A.,'' he said. ``When I won that gold medal in the 100, without a doubt I was the happiest person in Los Angeles. Nobody could have been happier than I was that day.''

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