NEVER SURRENDER: Olympic great's message on the power of perseverance

NEVER SURRENDER: Olympic great's message on the power of perseverance


By Greg Bach

Olympic swimming great Rowdy Gaines’ path to the sport was anything but golden, as he found disappointment and setbacks at every turn.

He tried out for five sports in high school – football, baseball, basketball, golf and tennis – and was cut in all of them.

But he never gave up.

Or allowed his confidence to nosedive.

And it’s a fabulous message for all young athletes to hear – and for coaches and parents to share with children and teens searching for that sport they truly want to wrap their arms around.

“When I speak to kids I tell them that I’m living proof that you should never give up on your dreams,” says Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, 10-time world record holder and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame inductee. “My sophomore year and half my junior year I tried out for five different sports and I was terrible in all of them. But I never gave up. There were certain times where I certainly felt like giving up and I thought maybe sports wasn’t my road to success, but I kept persevering.”

If a door closes on one sport that’s an opportunity to try a different one. If a child gets cut from a travel baseball team maybe they’ll fall in love with lacrosse if they give that sport a try. Or if a youngster isn’t enjoying the team elements of volleyball maybe tennis is a sport that will ignite their interest.  

“It’s a lesson I tell kids is that you can find your passion,” Gaines says. “You just have to keep persevering.”


The day he tried out for swimming he had visited the library to study up on track and field because if he got cut that afternoon he had his next sport to try already lined up.

But that wasn’t necessary.

As soon as he hit the pool he knew he had found what he was looking for.

“Swimming was just sort of next in line,” he says. “It wasn’t like I had a grand delusion of being an Olympian. I just wanted to try and make a sport. I will tell you the day I went out for swimming was the day that I fell in love with it. And I know it sounds corny, but it really was the day I started saying ‘this is my passion and I want to be the very best I can be in it.’”

Boy, did he ever deliver on that.

Within two years he broke his first world record and won a gold medal at the World Championships. He would go on to set world records in the 100-meter freestyle in 1981, the 200-meter freestyle in 1982 and win three gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“I was sitting behind the blocks right before my last race at the ’84 Olympics and I was trying to figure out how many miles of swimming I had done in eight years to reach this point where my race lasts about 49 seconds,” Gaines shares. “And in eight years I swam about 24,000 miles.”

And throughout those years he benefited from coaches who stressed process – not results.

Plus, he had parents who didn’t push.

That turned out to be a potent formula for success.

“There’s a fine line as a parent between shoving and nudging and my parents were always good at nudging me,” Gaines says. “They never shoved me. They were always encouraging me.”

Those positive voices from both his parents and coaches, blended with a world class work ethic, helped fuel his rise to Olympic glory.   

“I had really good coaches who were extremely positive around me and my journey,” Gaines says. “They had me buy in that it was a journey and you had to believe in the process. And that’s what I explain to kids is that you have to buy into the belief that what you are doing is right.”

Now that’s a golden message worth embracing.

Rowdy Gaines Swimming Perseverance Passion Process

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