Rowdy Gaines: athletes should not be heroes

Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines was the third Pillars of America speaker for 2012.

Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines says swimming is not for the faint of heart – and like most things in life, it requires dedication, commitment, responsibility, teamwork, focus, setting goals and taking risk.

“First and foremost on that list is dedication, commitment. And to me dedication means doing it through good times and bad times,” he told a Juneau audience Wednesday.

Gaines won three gold medals for the U.S. Olympic swim team in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. For the past 20 years he’s been a swimming analyst for network television. He also travels the country as a motivational speaker. He was the third and final speaker in this year’s Pillars of America series, sponsored by Juneau Rotary clubs.

“The champions I have found, at least in my sport, are the ones that can live through the good times – that’s so easy – but living through those valleys, that’s what’s so hard and that’s what makes a champion,” he said.

His Centennial Hall audience was comprised mostly of Juneau and Haines high school students. He said making mistakes is human – like this one at an Olympic trial:

“I’m really nervous. There are about 3,000 people in the audience, which is big for swimming, and back then it was ABC Wide World of Sports filming the whole thing. So I’m on the deck and I take my warm-ups off and hand them to my coach, and I start stretching — stretching out a little bit, swinging my arms, and kind of looking around — and all of a sudden it gets really quiet. Somebody yells ‘Rowdy, look down.’ And I look down and I’m completely naked,” he recalled to gales of laughter from the audience.

Despite that embarrassment, Gaines said he stayed committed to his goal, and made the Olympic team.

In 1991, at the age of 32, Gaines was temporarily paralyzed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. He called it a life-challenging event, and credits swimming for saving his life.

He told the students to maintain focus, never be afraid to fail, learn from their mistakes, and work with others as a team. Gaines said he gave his Olympic gold medals to his parents and coach because he could not have won without their support.

He called himself “just an athlete” and said “athletes should not be heroes.”

This is the 20th year Rotary has sponsored the Pillars of America series in Juneau.

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