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Hannah Storm’s “Rowdy” gets immersed in Gaines’s amazing aquatic journey

EDITOR’S NOTE: The latest SEC Storied, “Rowdy,” debuts tonight (SEC Network, 7 p.m. ET). ESPN’s Hannah Storm, who directed the film with her own “Brainstormin’ Productions” company, offers insight on the film.

Hannah Storm: “What makes Rowdy special is his genuine passion for swimming and lifelong love of the water — it acts as the thread of our film.” (Photo courtesy of Hannah Storm/ESPN)

Most folks know Rowdy Gaines from his super-enthusiastic broadcasting of swimming at the Olympics!

I’ve known him on a personal level for about 25 years and have always wanted to tell his story. He and my husband, Dan Hicks, are the longest-running announcing team ever at the Olympics. They called every single one of Michael Phelps’ record-setting races.

What makes Rowdy special is his genuine passion for swimming and lifelong love of the water — it acts as the thread of our film. Rowdy’s story is unique in that it’s about a swimmer at a football powerhouse, Auburn, who actually beat out the legendary Herschel Walker for SEC Athlete of the Year.

But much more than that, it is the story of heartbreak and perseverance, after the U.S. Olympic boycott in 1980. I wanted to highlight Rowdy’s journey as a part of history — a chance that was lost for so many athletes — who were victims of what is remembered as a failed political strategy.

Storm: “I was so gratified to be able to tell the story of a friend.” (Photo courtesy of Hannah Storm/ESPN)

It is also the story of a young man who found encouragement from his family, his coach and the Auburn community — an encouragement that was sorely needed years later when Rowdy faced a dangerous and paralyzing disease.

Rowdy has become, along with Phelps, two of swimming’s greatest ambassadors and I told his story using all the touch-points along his journey with vérité scenes revolving around the water. We shot at the lake he grew up on, the Auburn pool, the Olympic pool in Los Angeles on the USC campus, the YMCA pool where he works, and his pool at home with his grandchildren.

And because it was Rowdy, who is beloved and respected, everyone from Phelps to Charles Barkley to Pat Dye to Mark Spitz and John Naber, generously gave of their time to help bring the film to life. Like them, I was so gratified to be able to tell the story of a friend — and have others come to know the humble and passionate person who is Ambrose “Rowdy” Gaines.

“Rowdy” Gems: Nuggets from the making of the film
• The “master interview” with Rowdy was filmed in Storm’s Connecticut home on Jan. 4, 2018, the day of a major blizzard in the northeast. Storm and the film’s line producer, Carmen Belmont, had pre-stocked the house with “tons of food just in case” they were stranded.

• The antique TVs used in depicting some of the historical footage were found on Craigslist and the vignettes were also shot in Storm’s house on the same day. Storm’s husband, NBC’s Dan Hicks, sat for his “Rowdy” interview that day – in his own home!! He and Rowdy have called six Olympics together and was a driving force in urging Storm to pursue the film.

• Storm texted Charles Barkley and asked him to be part of the film. He texted right back, “Sure, whatever you need.”

• John Naber, featured prominently in the film, has co-hosted the Rose Bowl Parade with Storm on multiple occasions.

• Storm smartly utilized footage from Olympic chronicler Bud Greenspan, to crystalize the advantage Gaines had off the block in the ’84 Games for his first gold. Coach Richard Quick had told to Gaines be ready and alert due to a “fast trigger” official starter working that particular race. In fact, there was some controversy as to whether Gaines had false-started.

• Oddly, this is not the first SEC Storied involving the rare disorder, Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The 2015 film “Wuerffel’s Way” included details on former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel’s battle with Guillain-Barré.

• One of the “notes” offered during the editing process from Vice President and Executive Producer for ESPN Films John Dahl was, when mentioning Gaines’s relationship with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett, “be sure to have her pictured with a guitar” for those who may not know who she is. Young’uns, Google “Joan Jett” and enjoy the work of a rock legend!

– David Scott

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