Famous Latter-day Saints

How a 3-Time Olympic Gold Medalist Became Mormon


Ambrose Gaines IV, better known by his friends as "Rowdy," was one of the world’s fastest swimmers in the 1980s.

A 22-time NCAA All-American who broke several world records from 1978 to 1984, no one would guess Gaines had a rough time with sports as a boy—that is, until he tried swimming as a junior in high school.

In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Gaines was predicted to win no less than five gold medals up until the United States decided to boycott the Olympic Games.

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Thinking his Olympic run was over, Gaines retired shortly after graduating from Auburn in 1981. But when Gaines’s father encouraged him to keep swimming, he recommitted himself to the sport, and within a year he broke his own world record in the 200m freestyle at the World Championships.

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Image from Getty Images

At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Gaines returned to the spotlight, winning three gold medals—the most of any swimmer that year. But Gaines didn’t keep the glory for himself. Instead, he gave away each of his medals: one to his coach, one to his dad, and one to his mom.

In 1989, Gaines met and married Judy Zachea, a convert to the Church who was not active at the time. The two had just begun building their new family together when, in 1991, Gaines struggled with unexpected health problems. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder where the body’s immune system begins attacking the nerves. Weakness, tingling, and eventual paralysis are common symptoms.

Around the time of his diagnosis, an LDS friend invited the Gaines family to attend church. Soon after his recovery, Rowdy and Judy took them up on their offer and began attending church with their family.

His daughter was the first to be baptized in 1998. According to the Church News, Gaines spoke at her baptism about the gift of the Holy Ghost. “He said, 'Madison, one thing I cannot buy for you is the gift of the Holy Ghost,'” Judy recalled. “Then he got choked up and couldn't speak. The Spirit was so incredibly strong."

Just two weeks later, Gaines joined his daughter and was also baptized a member of the Church.

Thanks to his incredible fitness, determination, and newfound faith, Gaines was eventually able to make a full recovery from his disorder. In fact, in 2011 he broke yet another world record at the Masters for the 50-54 age group in the 100m free.

Now ranked as the most experienced television swimming analyst, Gaines makes frequent appearances as a commentator during the Olympics.

But, when asked what his proudest accomplishment is, this father of four girls told the Church News: “There's no comparison. It doesn't even measure on a Richter Scale . . . A gold medal is worthless compared to the love I feel for my family. It may sound corny, but it's true."

Lead image from teamusa.org
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