Swimmer Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, narrowly missed qualifying in 1988 and was hoping for a comeback in 1992 when his seemingly superhuman athlete’s body suddenly failed him. During the previous summer, Gaines, then 32, was busy competing, coaching and training while still keeping up with his job managing a Honolulu sports club. But one August day, just after he returned home from a charity swim, he felt an odd tingling in his legs. At first he thought it was the flu; within 48 hours, he knew it was something much worse. He was almost completely paralyzed, barely able to breathe. “You know how your fingers or foot feels when you have pins and needles? That’s how my whole body started feeling,” Gaines recalls. “Then everything just shut down, all my bodily functions.”
He was suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a relatively rare neurological disorder that can occur after a viral infection. Gaines lay paralyzed for two weeks in the hospital, and doctors say that it was his peak condition that saved his life. Years of training six hours a day also had given him the discipline necessary to rehabilitate himself. But it was an arduous road back. During his illness, he lost 40 pounds and needed help with even routine tasks. “The day I got out of the hospital, they had to carry me up the steps to the pool,” says Gaines. His therapy consisted of flexibility exercises, daily-massages, walking in the water and, after a few months, swimming. At the Honolulu Masters Championship in 1994, he set six world records for senior swimmers. Although his fingers sometimes get stiff in cold weather, he has almost completely recovered.
Last month, Gaines, 37, moved from Honolulu (his home for seven years) to Auburn, Ala., with his family—his wife, Judy, and their three daughters, Emily, 11, Madison, 6, and Savanna, 22 months. He hopes to do public relations and marketing work for his alma mater, Auburn University. And once again, he’s looking forward to going to the Olympics. He qualified for the U.S. team trials in both the 100-meter and 50-meter freestyle, but Gaines chose instead to be an NBC swimming commentator. “That’s going to be so exciting,” he says. “I’ll have the best seat in the house.”