The Silver Anniversary Award is given each year to six former student-athletes who have made significant professional and civic contributions since they completed their intercollegiate eligibility 25 years ago.
The Inspiration Award honors individuals who have become a role model and inspiration to others in how they have handled life-altering situations.
In February 2005, Denniston damaged his spine in a sledding accident in Wyoming. It took two hours for medical help to reach him. As a result of the accident, he was paralyzed from the waist down. Prior to this accident, Denniston was a world class swimmer who was a three-time NCAA champion at Auburn and a member of the U.S. national team at the world championships.
Gaines earned three gold medals at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles despite being past the peak of his career. He was the favorite to win at least twice as many golds in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow that were boycotted by former AU president Jimmy Carter.
Auburn coach David Marsh (left), Rowdy Gaines (right) and Dave Dennison (seated) are shown at the awards ceremony on Sunday.
Gaines set world records in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle events and was awarded the 1982 McDonald's Spirit Award, one of swimming's highest honors. In 1991, Gaines contracted Guillan-Barre Syndrome and was paralyzed for more than two weeks. Gaines fought back and one year later he won the World Masters Championships in the 50 and 100-meter freestyle's.
An eight-time NCAA Champion and six-time SEC Champion, Gaines garnered 22 All-American honors during his storied career at Auburn. The 1981 SEC Athlete of the Year, he was named the first recipient of the ConocoPhillips Performance Award (1982) that is presented by USA Swimming to the top performer in a specific event (200-meter freestyle).
"This is a huge honor, especially considering the credentials of those being honored by the NCAA," Gaines said. "I'm so blessed to have such great family and friends. Looking back on the past, Auburn changed my life. I have incredible memories of Auburn and more importantly, the Auburn people, who played such an important role in my development."
Denniston said, "I humbly accept this award, even though I don't feel like I've done enough to earn it. It puts pressure on me to be inspirational to people and I gladly accept that responsibility.
"What motivates me is to see my friends and teammates become successful in their endeavors. This award is something that I deeply cherish and look forward to living up to."
Presenting the awards to Denniston and Gaines in a ceremony in Orlando was Auburn head swimming coach, David Marsh.
"I'm truly thrilled for Dave Denniston," Marsh said. "I can't think of anybody that better represents this award. At Auburn, Dave was the inspirational leader of the team and as captain of the squad, his strength was providing the team a special swim or encouragement when it was needed most. This award takes on a whole new meaning as Dave's biggest challenge in life is to walk again. It is very fitting for Dave to receive this award.
"Rowdy is one of my best friends and it is very appropriate for his to be recognized because of the type of man he is," Marsh added. "He has given so much to the sport of swimming beyond his competitive days. He is the face of our sport in the United States and is the No. 1 ambassador for Auburn and the sport of Olympic swimming in our country."
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs had praise for the former Tigers. "Dave and Rowdy are extremely deserving of these awards and Auburn is very proud of their accomplishments," Jacobs said. "Both men were outstanding students, athletes and individuals during their Auburn careers and each have gone on to accomplish great things. They've touched the lives of so many individuals and we're very proud to call them our own."
Since the accident Denniston has been mostly confinded to a wheelchair, but he has taken more than 200 steps with the assistance of his trainers and is now able to crawl on his own. Denniston has put his communications degree to good use as he travels around the country as a motivational speaker.
Gaines has been an announcer of swimming events at four Olympics, including the 2004 Games in Athens, and will also work the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He has also served as a commentator for swimming events on CBS, TNT and ESPN. Gaines is now the chief fundraising and alumni officer for USA Swimming.