When swimmer Rowdy Gaines was winning Olympic medals 25 years ago, he may not have envisioned that one of his most important future races would span 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles).
Now a successful broadcaster, Gaines is known as the “voice of swimming.” A lifelong turtle conservationist, Gaines will also be the voice of the Great Turtle Race, an online event that begins April 16. This is the third such event in an exciting series that is designed to draw public attention to the Critically Endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
LEARN MORE: Discover the world of sea turtles and the threats they face.
This year, Conservation International (CI), National Geographic and the Canadian Sea Turtle Network have joined to follow 11 leatherback turtles as they leave their feeding areas in Nova Scotia, Canada and migrate to their breeding and nesting areas throughout the Caribbean. The turtles are tagged with satellite tracking devices that allow online audiences to follow their amazing 6,000-kilometer journey through the marine world.
Gaines will be joined by other swimming stars, Olympians all, who will “coach” the leatherbacks. They include seven-time medalist Amanda Beard; breaststroker and Beijing Olympics semifinalist Eric Shanteau; seven-time medalist and relay specialist Jason Lezak, and five-time gold medalist Janet Evans, a legendary distance swimmer. Seven-time medalist Aaron Peirsol and Cullen Jones, a relay gold medalist in Beijing, will coach the turtles in the swimming challenges, including longest dives and longest distance traveled.
One of the leatherback competitors has been christened Esteban Colburtle, but it is hardly a name to compete with this moniker: Ambrose Gaines IV. Better known as Rowdy, he was one of the world’s fastest swimmers in the 1980s. Denied a chance to compete at the peak of his career by the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Gaines won three gold medals and set two world records at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
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Gaines is also a lifelong turtle conservationist, who was raised and still has a home on Little Gaspirilla Island on the west coast of Florida. No cars are allowed on the island and there are even inside-house lighting restrictions so as not to disturb turtles and other marine life. The rules also require that all lights be turned off that shine on the beach or are visible on the beach from sunset to sunrise during nesting season. Gaines wants to pass on the importance of protecting sea turtles to future generations.
A Lifelong Love of Turtles
“My love goes back to my childhood – I’m a third-generation Floridian,” says Gaines. “My turtle awareness began when I was a kid, living on the island. The turtles used to lay their eggs right in front of our house. We learned about turning the lights off at night. It’s stuck with me my whole life. And now I have four kids, and they are just as into it as I am, if not more.”
Other kids liked dinosaurs or sharks or tigers, but turtles were always Gaines’ favorite animal. “I just felt I could relate to them as a kid,” he says. “I was painfully shy – I actually didn’t start to swim competitively until I was a junior in high school. So I used to withdraw into my shell, so to speak. I also like the fact that they have been here on Earth longer than us, so they’ve earned the right to exist.”
As with the leatherbacks, Gaines has faced his own challenges. In 1991, he was diagnosed with a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which left him partially paralyzed for over a month. Yet his lung capacity, built from years in the pool, spared him from breathing with a respirator and he ultimately beat the disease. “Swimming literally saved my life,” Gaines says. In 1992, he won the 50- and 100-meter events at the World Masters Championships.
Gaines has participated in numerous races, including the Coral Reef Swim in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to aid the cause of sea turtle conservation. A much sought-after broadcaster, who lent added excitement to the fantastic swimming competition at the Beijing Olympics, Rowdy admits that he’s never announced an open-water race with reptile competitors. He’s looking forward to adding the exciting Great Turtle Race to his impressive resume!
READ MORE: Meet Mr. Leatherback, Rowdy's Great Turtle Race co-commentator