In 1972 the best female swimmer in the world was Shane Gould of Australia. She held every world record in the freestyle events, from the minute-long frenzy of the 100 to the 1,500, a race lasting more than a quarter of an hour.
That year, in the U.S. Olympic Trials at Chicago's Portage Park, two 15-year-old girls broke Gould's records for the 200 and the 800—Shirley Babashoff of Fountain Valley, Calif. at 200 meters and Jo Harshbarger of Bellevue, Wash, at 800. A couple of weeks later Harshbarger received a postcard from Gould in Australia that read, "Congratulations. See you in Munich." Babashoff didn't receive one.
Sensing psychological warfare in the snub, a reporter in Munich cornered Babashoff, then a shy, skinny newcomer to international competition, and asked if it bothered her to be ignored by Gould. Babashoff said, "I don't feel ignored. I'm sure she knows I'm here." (Indeed, Gould did. They met head-to-head in the 100 and 200. In the former, Shirley won the silver, Shane the bronze; in the latter, Shane won the gold, Shirley the silver.)
That was, and still is, Shirley Babashoff. Calm, confident, stubborn, with a balanced view of her own importance. And those are the qualities which have enabled her to survive to the age of 19 in a sport that chews up adolescent girls and spits them out at 16 or 17 with their competitive fires extinguished. Now at the peak of her physical powers, Babashoff is by far the best female swimmer in this country. Until early this month she had the world record for the 400-meter freestyle—the only women's mark held by an American—and American records in the 100-and 200-meters freestyles. On June 3, however, during the East German Championships in East Berlin—perhaps the most extraordinary meet ever held, with 14 world records set—Barbara Krause lowered Babashoff's mark by 3.07 seconds (to 4:11.69). Whether Shirley can regain her eminence will be made clear during the Montreal Olympics. In her most recent major international competition, the World Aquatic Championships in Cali, Colombia last July, Babashoff entered seven events. She won the 200 and the 400 free, was second in the 100 free, third in the 800 and fourth in the 200-meter individual medley. She also anchored both U.S. relay teams to second-place finishes behind East Germany.
June 20, 1976
Babashoff's win in the 200, by .19 of a second over world-record holder Kornelia Ender of East Germany, had been a classic confrontation between the best sprinter in the world and the best middle-distance swimmer in the world, at a distance between their specialties. Ender, the drop-dead sprinter, swam the first 100 meters in a time close to her own world record for the event. Her strategy was obvious: build an insurmountable lead and hold on. Babashoff, the pacer, plotted her race and stuck to the plan. "I saw Ender at 25 meters and from there I never looked for her until the end," she said. "I didn't know I had won until I looked at the clock."
In 1972 the world of women's swimming was divided up between Australia and the U.S. Occasionally a record would slip away from the two powers and into the hands of a Japanese or a South African, but at the end of that year, out of a possible 15 world records, the American women held seven and the Australians six.
In 1973 the old order crumbled. The scene of the coup was the first World Aquatic Championships in Belgrade. East Germany, a team that had not quite reached the top rank by Munich but which had shown considerable promise with four second-place finishes, had stunningly improved, thanks to a new emphasis on weight training. Furthermore, it had acquired revolutionary new competition suits that fit like a second, tauter skin and weighed four negligible ounces. The new outfits, with their high-cut necks and recessed armholes, also served to emphasize the width of the frauleins' already broad shoulders, a most disheartening sight for the opposition.
Even more disheartening was what the German girls did in the medley relay on the first day of the championships. With world-record-equivalent times on each of the four legs, and with Ender swimming the freestyle anchor leg, they beat the American girls, anchored by Babashoff, by eight body lengths. At the final count 10 days later the East Germans had won 10 of the 14 events and had set seven world records.
"After the first day we kind of gave up," said Babashoff, who, though disappointed, came back from Belgrade with four silver medals. "We didn't expect them to be so big or to have gotten so much better or to have the new suit. When you have one good swim then the whole team does good. It's a chain reaction. Our team went just the opposite way. We should have done better. They surprised us."
Nothing has been the same since. Everyone lifts weights. Everyone wears skin suits. Every team does interval training. Nevertheless, the East Germans now hold world records in every Olympic swimming event.
For three years Shirley Babashoff has worked and adapted and grown, too, and this week as the U.S. Olympic Trials begin in Long Beach, Calif. the East Germans will be watching her in particular. She has been virtually a one-girl U.S. team holding back the East German flood. She is 5'10" now and weighs 150 pounds. Her wavy blonde hair falls below her shoulders, she wears contact lenses for her bright but weak blue eyes, her teeth are even and white and her skin is the color that a Southern California blonde's is supposed to be. She giggles more than an adult and understands her responsibilities better than a child.
At Golden West, a community college in Huntington, Calif., where she is a sophomore, Babashoff was selected homecoming queen last fall—she wore a rhinestone tiara and a dress her mother made—but she swims on the men's team. Tom Hermstad, the Golden West coach, provides a good psychological counterpoint to Mark Schubert, the coach of Shirley's home club, the Mission Viejo Nadadores. Hermstad is for fun, Schubert is for work, and each coach understands the value of the contrast to Babashoff.
"See that picture?" she said recently as she sat at the kitchen table in her parents' house, thumbing through a haphazard collection of newspaper clippings. The photo was taken in Munich, at a time when Shirley was growing so fast you could almost see it happening. She was 5'9" and weighed 125. Her sun-whitened hair was cut as short as a boy's, and in the picture a hank on the top of her head is standing straight up. "I looked like a Grade A creep, a zombie or something," she giggled.
"I think it's cute," said her mother, defending the haircut of which she had been the perpetrator.
Vera Babashoff is a plump, energetic woman in her early 40s with a round pretty face. Her head, neck and shoulders are immobilized by a leather and steel brace that she has worn since undergoing an operation to fuse four vertebrae in her neck eight months ago. Vera is the linchpin that holds the six Babashoffs together and the gyroscope that keeps them on course. Her husband Jack is a tall, good-natured, hard-working man with straight black hair and high flat Slavic cheekbones like Shirley's. He is a machinist at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon by day and holds down a second job at night to help finance his swimming family. Jack Jr. is 20 and a sprinter on a swimming scholarship at Alabama under Don Gambril. Billy is an irrepressible 17 and a high school All-America in the 200-and 400-meter freestyle. Debbie, who is six, so far devotes herself to kindergarten and hamsters.
In the context of contemporary America the Babashoffs are an anachronism. They are closer and stronger than the Waltons. They go to church on Sunday and visit their grandparents regularly. They say grace at meals and eschew spirits. The children do as they are told and use no bad language. The parents are self-sacrificing and, as is said nowadays, supportive. Everybody helps out and there are few complaints. Vera and Jack Babashoff are frugal, honest, industrious and the source of the strength that helps set Shirley apart from her peers.
The swimming chapters of the Babashoff story began on a summer day in 1965 when Vera signed up 9-year-old Jack Jr. and 8-year-old Shirley for lessons at a junior college pool in Norwalk, a town south of Los Angeles where the family then lived.
"I have this fear of water myself," Vera says. "I didn't want my kids to drown. So one day one of the coaches said, 'Why don't you put them on the novice team?'
"Shirley's first race was the 25-yard free, one length of the pool. There was this mother there, I'll never forget her. She was a typical swimming mother, all over the bleachers telling everybody her girl was going to win. I'm sitting there just hoping my girl doesn't drown."
"I didn't know how to breathe," Shirley explains.
"So anyway, they shot the gun and Shirley didn't dive, she kind of jumped in. The other girl had swum races before and she had a beautiful stroke. She breathed. And here's this one [Shirley] plop, plop, plop, then pant, pant, pant, while she dog-paddles, then plop, plop, again. She outtouched that other girl by a fingertip."
Though she is far from being a typical swimming mother, Vera is still in the bleachers 10 years later, and Shirley is still winning races by fingertips. In fact, she is famous for it. Watching a Babashoff race is frequently an athletic event in itself, so many of her finishes are so close. She comes from behind time after time, and coming from behind in swimming is a slow, grinding process, inexorable in Shirley's case, but nonetheless wrenching to watch.
"Two days before, I plan out the race, where I want to be at certain times," she says. "I think about it a lot. I try not to worry just before a race. You have to psych yourself, but just before is not the right time."
"Shirley doesn't often win by big margins, but she always wins," says Schubert. "It makes me think she hasn't even scratched the surface. In the 200 at the World Championships last summer she was two body-lengths behind Ender at 100 meters, 1½ at 150 meters and one with 25 meters to go. She touched Ender out in the last stroke."
Shirley and Schubert, a 27-year-old Ohioan and a former University of Kentucky swimmer, came together in 1973 when she was 16 and he was in his second year as aquatic director of Mission Viejo, a lavish real-estate and recreational development halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Schubert's swim club, the Nadadores, has 473 members, fields 10 teams and requires five assistants to administer. Its senior teams have won the national combined title twice and the girls' title four times in the last two years.
Schubert, who looks younger than some of his swimmers, is a tough coach, an efficient administrator and martinet about things such as promptness, team uniforms, adherence to training regimens and insubordination. He and Shirley seem to have worked out a sometimes abrasive but beneficial relationship that is a standoff, when things grow tense, between his temper and her stubbornness.
At the long-course nationals in Kansas City on a fiercely hot day last summer, Schubert exploded when he found Shirley sitting in the grandstand with her family rather than in the bleachers with the team. Schubert crossed to the grandstand and shouted up at his star, "If you're not going to cheer for your teammates, don't expect them to cheer for you!" Shirley yelled back that she was cheering from where she was. Schubert's anger subsided quickly; Shirley's did not. Later when the coach returned to say it was time for a rubdown before her next race, Shirley replied that she did not care to have a rubdown.
That is where the incident ended, but the Babashoffs think about it.
Vera: One thing about Mark. He may get mad but he comes back fast. He's a smart guy.
Shirley: I really made him feel bad that day.
Vera: I'm sure you did.
Shirley: I made him feel bad after he made me feel bad.
Vera (chuckling): He made me feel worst of all. I was sitting there minding my own business, right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do. I could have climbed under the chair.
The relationship of most girl swimmers and their coaches is mutually affectionate. That of Babashoff and Schubert is mutually respectful. More typical was Shirley's relationship with her first real coach, Flip Darr of the Huntington Beach Aquatic Club, with whom she worked from the age of 12 until Darr's temporary retirement from coaching when she was 16.
She does not say so directly, but there seems no doubt she was hurt by Darr's abandonment. It had come at an especially bad time, not long after the debacle at Belgrade. "I used to be very good at distances because we worked distances a lot when I was at Flip's," she says. "I was really young and had all this energy in me. And then Flip started, you know, losing interest in us or something—I don't know what happened to him. He was going to quit coaching our team. So then I wasn't working out as hard—or I was working out as hard but the workouts weren't as hard—and I started getting better at sprints. And that was when I went to Belgrade. I did really badly there and I was depressed. And then I came back and Flip left the Huntington Beach team, you know. He just went. So I went to Mission Viejo. We started swimming 10,000 yards a day and my distance really improved a lot. I can go out and swim anything now."
"Babashoff is the hardest-working, most talented swimmer I have ever coached," says Schubert.
Day begins in the Babashoff household on Santa Clara Street at 4:45 a.m. when Shirley's alarm goes off. By 6 she is in the pool, where she works out until 8, "or 8:30 if I feel dedicated enough." She attends classes until 1 and then drives home for lunch, and dinner two hours later. In between she studies or runs errands for her mother. At 3:45 she drives 30 miles south on the San Diego Freeway for her evening practice with the Mission Viejo senior team.
Before getting into the water for a two-hour, 7,000-yard workout the team, some 30 strong, goes through half an hour of weight training in a small room next to the coach's office. They move dreamily in unison through a silent minuet, from wall-mounted pulleys to swim-bench exercises to stretching positions on the floor, each change of station signaled by a command from the coach. The only other sound is the rasp of the pulleys, resisting.
By 8:30 Shirley is home and by 10:30 she is usually in bed. When she is not in heavy training she takes Sundays off. She used to play volleyball and Softball but she has given them up for now. An Olympic year is not time to break a finger. Nor does she go to the beach as much as she would like, either, since extracurricular exercise such as body surfing would play havoc with Schubert's carefully calculated regimen of specific strengthening followed by specific rest leading to the Trials.
Rest is called "tapering" in the language of swimming. "You work hard to get your strength built up, your heart and your muscles," Shirley explains. "Then you taper maybe two weeks before the meet. You go from 10,000 yards a day down to something like 3,000. You work on speed rather than endurance. When the meet comes you're rested. You have extra energy you don't know what to do with. You explode."
Like almost everything connected with competitive swimming, tapering is, in part, a psychological ploy. So are the tight, sleek skin suits, which are saved for important occasions. For workouts swimmers wear standard, old-fashioned tank, or "drag," suits, usually one on top of another.
A coach like Schubert, who has the facilities, will try to schedule morning and afternoon workouts in different pools, the only gesture he can make in the direction of varying the swimmer's surroundings. Shirley was once asked how she passed the time while swimming. She said, "Sometimes you sing songs, or look at the gum on the bottom of the pool...you always find something to keep you busy." Schubert also varies the content of the workouts—the distances, the speeds, the strokes. Though Babashoff is not seriously considering the individual medley as an Olympic event, she works on it anyway. It breaks the tedium of freestyle. "In an Olympic year," says Schubert, "you can't let up."
Vera Babashoff sat in the stands at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach, an airy pavilion on the edge of the Pacific where the Olympic Trials will take place this week. It was 9 o'clock on the first morning of the three-day Southern California Invitational and she was waiting to be called to her post as a volunteer timer at the head of lane No. 1. A 28-pound turkey, enough to get the family through the weekend, was cooking at home. Debbie Babashoff was all over the deck, chatting with her hundreds of acquaintances. Shirley and Bobby were warming up in the pool.
"Until eight months ago," said Vera, "I thought Shirley would go on swimming, even past the Olympics. But I'll be just as glad to see her stop. I've seen her miss too much. The only thing I worry about afterwards is her weight.
"Three months ago, for the first time, she didn't want to work. She'd say, 'Why do I have to?' I think it had to do with being selected homecoming queen. It was the beginning of a social life. She found out what she had been missing."
Some days Shirley wants to be a marine biologist and other days she just wants to lie on the beach. Sometimes she thinks she will go to work as a lifeguard after the Olympics, and other times she thinks a scholarship to the University of Hawaii would be nice. She feels her indebtedness to her family for their years of sacrifice, but she tries not to dwell on it. Not yet, anyway. There will be time for that later. After the Trials. After the Olympics. Time for softball and volleyball and body surfing, for late nights and college and repaying debts of gratitude.
In spite of occasional dips in morale, her workouts through the winter were gratifying. At the AAU indoor nationals in Long Beach in April, an event for which she tapered only 10 days compared to the four full weeks she has tapered for the Olympic Trials, the homecoming queen from Golden West won the 400 in a time that at that point was one second off her world record, and the 200 in 2:02.54, only .27 off Kornelia Ender's world mark. In addition, swimming a difficult double on the last day, she took second in the 100 and was third in the 800.
It was enough to keep a girl going for a little while longer.