The Sound of Victory: Three Time Olympic Gold Medalist Rowdy Gaines’ Journey to Better Hearing

rowdy gaines
May 6, 2024

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Rowdy Gaines joins Gael Hannan for a candid conversation about his experience with hearing loss. He shares how he first noticed issues in his 50s, likely due to hereditary factors, ear infections from years of competitive swimming, and exposure to loud environments. Rowdy describes initially being in denial about needing hearing aids before getting properly fitted with a set of prescription devices from that have tremendously improved his hearing ability.

He emphasizes the life-changing impact his new Signia hearing aids have had, especially for his work as a broadcaster covering major swimming events like the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics. Rowdy praises being able to differentiate voices more clearly and highlights the importance of strong communication with his broadcasting partner.

He also reflects on overcoming the stigma he felt about wearing hearing aids by applying the same discipline he had as an elite athlete.

Full Episode Transcript

Hello. Welcome to This Week in Hearing. I’m Gael Hannan, and I am delighted to be talking today with Rowdy Gaines. An Olympic swimmer and a person with hearing loss, Rowdy Gaines flourished during his decorated career as an Olympic swimmer. Rowdy took home three gold medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics and smashed ten world records. Throughout his career, health was a top priority for Rowdy to ensure peak physical condition, but health and wellness took a different form following Rowdy’s retirement. Still an active member of the swimming community, he’s a father of four and a scheduled broadcaster for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, Rowdy was forced to tackle a new challenge and aspect of his health, his hearing and hearing technology. And we’re going to talk about that today. Hello. Rowdy Gaines, how are you? Good, Gael. Thank you so much for having me on. Oh, I’m delighted. I’m a little star-struck because I have trouble keeping my head above water and certainly not an athlete. So I am very impressed by what you’ve accomplished and to be talking with you today. So it’s wonderful. So let’s get going. do you mind sharing with us a bit about your athletic career? I mean, it was certainly impressive. and then we’ll get into the hearing stuff later, but give us a little bit brown. Sure. I’m from Winter Haven, Florida, right in the middle of the state. He threw a dart. It hit right in the middle on right between Orlando and Tampa. Long time Floridian, born and raised. and didn’t start swimming competitively until I was in high school. Actually, I was 17 years old when I went out for my high school swim team. But I learned how to swim at a very early age. My parents thought it was really critical. We lived on a lake and. And so I learned how to swim before I learned how to walk, either, or not, but didn’t start swimming competitively until later in my life. And then kind of it. It happened quickly, to tell you truth, Gael. I mean, within two and a half years, I broke my first world record and made the 1980 Olympic team, which we did not get a chance to compete in because of the boycott back in 1980, and then trained for another four years. And, of course had my moment in the sun, so to speak, in 1984 in Los Angeles. So it was a real thrill to obviously represent my country and to do it at home in Los Angeles, which was sort of icing on the cake. It was awesome. I think the word thrill is probably an understatement of what that meant in your life, and congratulations on that. So tell me about when did you first notice or were aware that you might be developing hearing issues? Well, it didn’t happen. I’m 65, and it didn’t happen until, really, my early fifties, when I was first starting to recognize some sort of loss or some sort of difficulty in hearing conversations, especially in crowded places, and the whispers and just little things. I noticed again, I didn’t pay much attention to it and obviously progressively it got worse and worse and especially when I was around family, specifically my wife, who made me aware of it and so I started to think probably about seven or eight years ago, I decided to do something about it. That’s wonderful. do you think, I’m not sure what your diagnosis is, but is there any thought that you’re swimming being in noisy swimming arenas? Is that what they call it? This is how little I know about sports. But do you think that had any impact on your causing hearing loss? I’ve had different doctors tell me that they said potentially because of the ear infections that I had as a child, being in the water consistently throughout my life, whether it was in the lakes of Winter haven, Florida, or in swimming pools. You know, I was sitting behind the block Gael, right before my last race at the Olympics, trying to figure out how many miles of swimming I had done to reach this point where my race lasted 49 seconds. And in eight years, that was swimming competitively, I swim about 24,000 miles, which is the circumference of the globe around the equator. So I literally, not literally, figuratively, I swam around the world. Point being is I was in the water a lot and got a lot of ear infections that could have had some bearing on it, but I think the majority of it came from heredity. my father is still alive. He’s 88 but he is very, very hard of hearing. Has had hearing aids for, I don’t know, 30 years – 20 years anyway. And my mother, who has passed away was hard of hearing as well. So I think you know, it was my, as they, as they say in that old movie, my density of back to the future, my destiny to have some sort of hearing loss. Yeah, that was kind of a triple whammy. The hereditary and ear infections and being in loud, noisy environments along the top. Nevertheless you realized that you had hearing loss, and you said you decided to do something about it. Tell me about that. What did you do? You know, the first thing I did, believe it or not, this has got to be ten years ago, was I went to Sam’s Club. Sam’s club. Oh, Sam’s club. Okay. It was either Sam’s club or Costco. I can’t remember which one. I think it was sam’s club. And they had a little, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Costco, but they usually have a little hearing aid or hearing center where you can test your hearing. And I was just on the way to Sam’s club, and, oh, I’m going to go test my hearing. And that’s how it all started. And of course, even in a room and Terry situation they said, yeah, you are starting to experience hearing loss. And you have. This is ten years ago, about 30% in each year where you’re, you’re having difficulty. Now, when that happened, it was certainly denial was the first thing that, you know, I’m fine. You know, it’s going to be fine. I’m not going to do anything about it. I’m not. Certainly not going to wear hearing aids. And so I didn’t really do anything about it for another three or four years. Three or four years. Now, I was about to say before you got to that part, that you were quite different from the normal story where people debate. I don’t have hearing loss. They’re in denial. But you, out of the blue, you’re on the way to Sam’s club for, you know toilet paper and coffee, and you went, whoa, I’ll get my hearing tested. So I thought, wow, that’s such a great story. But you went into the denial phase after that. so eventually you got through that. Did you go back to the same place or did you try someplace different? No, I didn’t go back to the same place. I ended up just realizing that it was affecting my relationships, it was affecting my professional life part of my life. Now, Gael is literally in the broadcasting world. So a lot of it is talking about swimming on television. Now, that’s a little bit of a different case, but certainly in meetings and just being around family specifically watching tv, having you have the closed caption on, and with my wife whispering to me in church, I mean, just little things started to add up. It was just that simple. It wasn’t sort of like the light bulb went off. It was sort of like I need to do something about it. I need to swallow my pride and get something done. So that’s when I ended up going to a professional and then realizing the loss was even more than I had realized over the next three or four years. And I actually did something about it. I think that’s wonderful. I talk a lot about the hearing loss journey, and that’s certainly what you have told me so far. with your hereditary hearing loss and the swimming, and then bit by bit realizing it, until you get to that tipping point where you do something about it you make it sound like it was not too difficult a progression, but I’m sure that in the realizing of. And you said you swallowed your pride, so did you feel that stigma? Was it wearing hearing aids? That was difficult for you? Yes, no doubt. the ego would not allow me to think about using something that people might look at me and think of me differently or something. So, yeah, I went through that phase absolutely. And again, I just realized, Gael, that I was missing things in my life. and I just found that the stigma of hearing aids has changed dramatically than it did was 40, 50 years ago. And the technology has certainly changed. And I ended up, again just realizing that this was going to be the best for my future. And I’m sure your wife felt the same. The future buffs. Yeah. so tell me about. So you get hearing aids, and I think you wear Signia at this point. That’s great. how was the adjustment period and how have hearing aids actually, in those individual issues, your relationship and your work, how has hearing technology impacted that for you? Well in the beginning, I literally just went kind of an over the counter, $50 kind of hearing aid type of thing and went to Walmart and bought, you know, that’s how it all started. You didn’t? I did. I went to. Yeah, I know, I know, I know. I. No excuse. Again, it was just sort of, oh, you know, I have a. Whatever, I need a pair. I need a pair of reading glasses. So I’m gonna go to Walmart, buy, you know, five for $25, you know, $5 apiece. And I, you know, I still do that with my, my $5 reading glasses. But obviously, it didn’t do much. And it was. It was. It was not the right thing to do. So I ended up doing a more a better brand that I ended up, you know, purchasing. And but it still didn’t. It wasn’t like 100% satisfaction. I mean, it definitely helped. but I just felt like I was still kind of just wading along in this 3ft of water that was ending up kind of going to 4ft, then 5ft. Soon it was over my head. And fortunately, the Signia came along and it was a game changer for me that changed my life. So I would imagine to. First of all, I want to apologize if I seem judgmental about the over the counter, because in reality, I love that you. Okay, well, I get glasses here, I’ll try this device. And that was a starting point for you. And then you realized you needed something more. Can I suggest that perhaps that something more was the hearing care professional who worked with you? Would that be a correct assumption? Like – the hearing professional work with me? Yeah. So they. They did recommend something more sophisticated, obviously, but it’s money. Yes, I know. And I. Again, that was still part of the denial phase, I think, Gael and the ego and the saying, you know, I’m not going to spin this. I don’t really need that. I just need something very simple, like reading glasses. It was really around the same time I started wearing reading glasses, and I just thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. Right. Obviously, hindsight’s a beautiful thing, and when I look back, those were not wise decisions. But But the. But the professional certainly did not recommend that I go to Walmart and buy, you know, $50 hearing aids. It is a shock for people to discover that when they do first get hearing technology, that it doesn’t perfect their hearing the way our reading glasses do. It’s a different sensory, neural sense of. And there are so many things that impact how successful we are, and it’s dependent on our environment. Is it noisy? How well does someone else speak? All of these things, many of which may seem to be out of our control. So. And that’s where. But if you put the glasses on, as long as you’ve got them on, you can see. I find this fascinating. So it is. You worked at it, and I, as an Olympic athlete, require discipline to smash all those world records. Congratulations, by the way. Thank you. In your hearing loss journey, would you say that did you have to apply the same discipline to communicating? Yes. again, and I would consider myself a fairly disciplined person. I like routine in my life. and I think that was, again, swimming four to 6 hours a day, six days a week year round, and you get into a routine and you develop some habits that are, you know, they’re really good for you, you know, dedication commitment, responsibility, teamwork, setting goals. These are all kinds of words that I try to live by on a daily basis. I was never perfect by any stretch to the imagination. I failed many times. but the key word for me was consistency. And I think once I applied these words and the word specifically, consistency, to my hearing loss, I realized I needed, I realized that it was really critical for me to have the kind of life I needed to have in the back half or the back nine, I should say. I needed to have the kind of hearing that would help me through the back part of my life. That’s wonderful to hear. And your family and your wife specifically, since we’re talking about her in your communication with her things had to change that she found that she has had to adapt to. Even with hearing aids, use a less than stellar hearing. Tell me a bit more about that, if you don’t mind. Absolutely. I mean, certainly during that period of denial and did and not having the hearing aids, it was difficult, you know, having to repeat your. The bottom line, it’s not rocket science. It’s repeating yourself over and over again. I mean, it’s. That’s, that’s the frustrating part for the person that I’m communicating with, and for the majority of that time, it’s my wife. I spend the majority of my time unless I’m on the road with my wife. we’re empty nesters, as you said. We have four children, four daughters. I have five granddaughters. We have five granddaughters. And so it’s something that was, again, very difficult for us. And until recently, with the signals that I have now, it never changed that much, but it’s life changing now. Gael. I mean, you’re a professional. This is your world. It’s not my world, but I know as just some average person that is getting on with their life, it is life changing. You know, when I put these on in the morning and I go about my day, it is like I’m 25 years old again. I love that. I love that. And I have never lost my sense of wonderment at the technology. And because just briefly, like, my hearing got worse and worse and worse, but technology got better and better and better. and technology is just one aspect, I think my goal is not just better hearing, it’s better communication. And in order to communicate better, there’s other things. your wife understanding your hearing loss, your wife knowing to face you, mind you, if she’s like the hearing husband that’s what I call my husband. every day there’s some little things do with hearing loss. That’s part of the communication journey. So congratulations to your wife and you. what I wanted to know is a little bit more about This is fantastic. The Paris Olympics this summer. I mean, Paris. Just the word Paris gets me excited. and Olympics and summer. All of this is wonderful. What technology, like, you’re a broadcaster now. What technology helps you do that? Like, how do your hearing aid blend into other technology that you use? Well, I think that the biggest thing for me is the communication outside the actual broadcast. So the meetings that, you know, we have consistently. I’m at the pool 18 hours a day during the nine days of the Olympic swimming. So this is my 9th Olympic Games coming up. I’ve gotten adjusted somewhat to the routine of what an Olympics is all about. But now with this technology, as you said, it’s really given me the ability to differentiate in a big setting with a lot of people. And also, it’s really interesting because I wear them even though I have a headset on during the broadcast. So when I’m broadcasting, I have a headset with microphone, and I’m talking about swimming, and. But during the broadcast, this is really cool. I was not cool. It’s very stressful at times, but I sometimes have four or five people talking to my ear at the same time about what’s going on in the broadcast. I have my partner, my play by play partner. I have the producer who’s actually running the telecast. He’s back in the truck. He talks. I have a sort of a stat guy that gives me specific statistics. I have the director, and sometimes I have the president of the entire company, and sometimes they’re all talking in my ear at the same time. You’re stressing me out. This stresses me out, the thought of that. So I’m not kidding. Gael, my wife, has been in the booth with me, and she has to take the headphones off because she just can’t take having all this communication. But the great thing about what I have now is I can differentiate easier with the ability to hear them better, obviously, but also the great technology to be able to differentiate the different sounds of their voices and the cadence of it all. And again, going back to it, the most important person that you really have to listen to is my play by play, my play by play partner. I’m the analyst. When I’m talking about sleep. So I’m telling everybody how things are going and why things are going. He’s doing what is going on, but he might ask me a question. And if I’m listening to one or two or three other people, and he asked me a question on the air that’s going over the air. So it’s really cool to be able to specifically hear him when I need to hear him. Have you ever had to say pardon? Oh, yeah. To him. And that play by play person? Oh, yeah, I’m again, absolutely, you know, and that’s, that’s because in the past, I mean, I’ve called with Dan and I, Dan Hicks, my partner at NBC, and we figured we’ve called about 1200 Olympic races together in our eight years or eight Olympic games together. So, yeah, I’m not perfect, you know, I mean, we’re going to make mistakes and I’m going to have to say pardon every once in a while, but I’m pretty good now at doing he making sure, I have my undivided attention to him first and foremost. I think that echoes that often when I meet someone for the first time, until I am used to their speech patterns and the sound of their voice. Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s acclimatizing to them. So with your play by play partner, does he have a name? Is it one person or. It’s it. Well, the, at the Olympics is one person Dan Hicks. Now I do probably 15 or 20 other broadcasts during the year with various play, play by play partners. But, yeah, Dan is my longtime friend and longtime partner at the Olympic games. Dan. Well, we love Dan because I’m sure Dan has learned how to speak clearly for you and to understand if you don’t catch something which is part of, you know, just part of our hearing loss makeup, this is going to happen from time to time. yeah, that’s very exciting. I don’t follow swimming, but I think I’m very excited about checking you out. and what particular events are, is it a particular swimming event at the Olympics? Like 100 meters? Yeah. So the, the Olympics is done in the metric system, obviously, just like it every other event. And we have many different strokes. We have butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. They’re all swum at the Olympic games, different distances. The United States has been the number one country in the world of swimming since 1956. Those 68 straight years, the US has been number one. So we have a great tradition of excellence in our sport and and I have the best seat in the house. I’m right at the finish line, and I. I get to flap my mouth about swimming, which I’m pretty good at, flap my mouth, and And I get to talk about a sport that that has, you know, done so much for me. I could never imagine doing enough for the sport as much as that it has given me. That’s gorgeous. I wanted to ask another question a bit earlier, but I’ll ask it now. While you are swimming with obviously, you don’t wear your devices, or you may. You might have a way of cut. So how does not hearing as well, when you’re in the water? did that affect your swimming? No. In fact, it’s. Gael. In many ways, it’s a nice escape. Now, when I was younger and I was swimming all 10 miles a day and training for the Olympics and everything, I didn’t have the hearing loss. So when I would touch the wall, my coach would talk to me while I was in the water, I’d be fine. but now I still swim every day. I literally swim, not so much for the physical part of my life, but for the emotional. And as corny as it sounds, the spiritual side. It’s sort of like meditation for me. I don’t swim much, about a half hour, 45 minutes a day. But when I’m in the water, that’s the one time I like to block everything out. You know, I don’t hear anything that my ears are submerged, obviously, and I don’t hear. And it’s kind of nice to be able to have that quiet time for myself. And I’m sure that it is a stress reliever when you are dealing with the other things in your life. with hearing loss, there is always, even if it’s below the surface, there’s a little issue of stress if we’re not quite getting something. and that’s why an understanding spouse. our community sign language for communication. Communication partner, who is truly our partner in communication, is crucial. Rowdy Gaines, I have just enjoyed this talk so much, and I want to thank you for sharing your insights of your journey with hearing loss. I just think it’s very inspiring. I hope you don’t get tired of hearing that, but I do feel very inspired by our talk, and I really wish you great success in Paris this summer. And as a Canadian, I understand metrics, and I’m very happy for the US that you’re so good at this swimming. But I will say, Gael, that Canada is going to have an exceptional swim team this summer. You’re going to have a superstar in Paris. Her name is Summer McIntosh. Remember that name. She’s Canadian young girl, 17 years old. She’s going to be a superstar. Fantastic. Thank you for that. Pump up, so Rowdy Gaines This Week in Hearing, thank you so much. And best of luck in your hearing journey. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Gael


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About the Panel 

Ambrose “Rowdy” Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and record-setting swimmer, transitioned from the pool to the broadcast booth as an NBC Olympic commentator and motivational speaker. Known as “Swimming’s Greatest Ambassador,” Gaines’ remarkable journey epitomizes dedication and ambition, reflecting the American spirit beyond athletic achievement.


Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog The Better Hearing Consumer, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book “The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss“. She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.



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