Rowdy Gaines was born in Winter Haven, FL on February 17, 1959. He began swimming late as a junior in high school.
He developed quickly enough to earn a swimming scholarship to Auburn University. At Auburn he became a five-time NCAA champion under the training of former Stanford University and current Auburn head swimming coach Richard Quick.
During one four-year period, Gaines held eleven World Records and, had the United States not boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, he would have been a favorite to win multiple medals at the event. After graduating from Auburn in 1981, he stopped swimming for several months, thinking he had missed his opportunity to be an Olympic medalist, but was urged to resume swimming by his father. When Gaines qualified at the 1984 Olympic trials, his times were not particularly impressive and he was not expected to place at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He won the 100-meter freestyle off a very good start and swam the anchor leg for both the US gold medal-winning 4 x 100-meter freestyle and 4 x 100-meter medley teams.
In August 1991, Gaines was temporarily paralyzed with Guillain-Barrè Syndrome. After a two-month hospitalization, Rowdy fought back and overcame the disorder with the love and support of family, the swimming community and knowledgeable medical professionals. "Swimming literally saved my life, my doctors explained, that my lung capacity from swimming spared me from breathing with a respirator".
One year later he went on to the World Masters Championships and won the glamorous 50 and 100 meter events. He eventually regained world-class times and, at the age of 35, became the oldest swimmer to qualify for the trials for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Ultimately, he chose not to compete in the trials for Atlanta but rather continue his career as a television commentator, covering swimming for NBC at the Games.