Vidal was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1964. At age 20, he became the first Venezuelan swimmer to win an Olympic medal in the 200-meter butterfly competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Although he was one of the smallest men in the pool at 5-foot-11, Vidal was well ahead of West Germany's 6-foot-7 Michael Gross at the finish. However, one of Gross' elongated arms managed to touch the poolside first, robbing Vidal of silver. That heroic bronze-medal finish made him a national celebrity, with his image splashed on magazine and newspaper covers throughout Venezuela. His mark ranks him as the eighth of the top ten swimmers in the 200-meter butterfly of all time.
After returning to Venezuela, Vidal was employed by a local television channel as a sports commentator and became a well-known television personality. Early on the morning of February 12, 2005, Vidal was killed in a traffic accident when another driver crashed his speeding Hummer into Vidal's car. The second driver was participating in an illegal street race. Vidal was 41 years old.
A "Million Meter Swim" (Un Millón de metros por Rafael Vidal)  was held on February 12, 2006, at which more than fourteen million meters were swum by swimmers from Venezuela and around the globe. The tribute has been held every year since then.