Mary T. Meagher is 14 years old, has braces on her teeth and a toy stuffed frog named Bubbles. She is learning needlepoint and has a nervous giggle, and her schoolmates call her "Fishy." She is indeed at home in the water, for she is one of those American swimmers who seem to go directly from puberty to the Olympic Games.
Fishy Meagher is the brightest U.S. hope for gold medals in the women's butterfly events in Moscow. Last week at the AAU National Long Course Championships in steamy Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she set an American record in the 100-meter butterfly (1:00.19). Not bad for a kid who has yet to start the ninth grade, but in an even more impressive performance she chewed big chunks off her own world 200-meter butterfly record of 2:09.77, set five weeks before at the Pan-Am Games. In the prelims the first day of the meet she lowered it to 2:08.41. In the final that night she dropped it to 2:07.01, surging through the water as if an Everglades alligator were snapping at her heels.
On the whole, though, the AAU meet wasn't a prime showcase for records, or even good times. The event was staged in a 50-meter pool adjacent to the Swimming Hall of Fame, on a peninsula jutting into the Intracoastal Waterway only a short block from the beach. The humidity was only a bit lower than it is in Rangoon. The water in the Hall of Fame pool wasn't Jacuzzi-hot, but it wasn't cool and stimulating either. The pool was also shallow (three and a half feet deep at each end), so there was too much turbulence.
For those reasons most of the performances didn't shake the foundations of the hall next door, or make any of the coaches stare in amazement at their stopwatches. Which makes Meagher's feats even more impressive. In cool, deep water, there is no telling what she might have done.
August 26, 1979
Steve Gregg, the silver medalist in the 200 fly at the Montreal Olympics and now a graduate student in physiology at the University of Arizona, watched from the stands as Meagher churned to her 2:07.01. Two days later, after his own impressive win in the men's 200, he was still excited by Mary T.'s exploits.
"I remember when that was a good time for me, a man," he said. "That's a heck of a swim. I know that 2:07.01 is awful fast. If you look through the times this morning, a lot of men went slower than that. A lot of men. [Only five, actually.] That is an awesome swim."
Mary T. Meagher (pronounced MAW-her) is called Mary T. because the oldest of her 10 siblings is also a Mary, Mary G. The "T" stands for Terstegge, her mother's maiden name. Her dad is a prosperous businessman (a handy thing when you have 11 children), chairman of the board of a company that distributes hardware and manufactures fireplace fixtures, toolboxes and tackle boxes.
The Meaghers live in Louisville, where Mary T. learned to swim at a country club when she was four. A few years later her older brother Jimmy, now 25 and an ex-butterfly record holder at Notre Dame, took her aside and gave her some tips in his specialty, never dreaming he was pointing her toward Moscow in 1980. Last fall she left the country club team and joined Louisville's Lakeside Swim Club, coached by Denny Pursley.
Pursley quickly saw that "she has a very unusual ability to maintain a constant speed at near maximum exertion for long periods of time," and he proceeded to assign her a workout schedule that would discourage a porpoise.
"If there's a sport more demanding as far as hours and effort expended are concerned," says Pursley, "I'd like to know what it is. You train 10 miles a day, five hours a day in the water, plus working with weights, year round. It takes four times longer to swim 10 miles than it does to run 10 miles. It's the most boring sport to train for. You can't see anything, you can't hear anything, and it's monotonous. If you're a runner, you can at least enjoy the scenery and listen to the birds."
And how does Mary T. view the grind? What about next season and the one after that? Will she continue to give 100% or will she—as so many have before her—begin to burn out psychologically? "I'll worry about that after the Olympics," she says. "Then I'll decide if I want to go on, to give up my time."
Most swimmers have to pace themselves more in the butterfly than in other events because it's more demanding. They tire faster and lose strength. As for Mary T., she just shrugs when asked if it's the hardest stroke. "It's not hard for me," she says. "I like it. I was always a butterflyer. It's a stroke where you can't really loaf, 'cause you'll sink if you do."
The truth is, Meagher thrives on the hard workouts. After setting junior records, last April she won her first national title, taking the 200-yard fly at the AAU short-course championships. At a local invitational meet in June she beat her Sullivan Award-winning heroine, Nashville's Tracy Caulkins, 16, by more than five seconds in the 200.
All was going beautifully. Then Pursley called the Lakeside team together and announced he will move this fall to Cincinnati, 100 miles away, to coach the Cincinnati Marlins. Some Louisville kids are sure to follow, but will Mary T. be one of them?
The Meaghers haven't decided. "Right now she's registered to go to Sacred Heart in Louisville," says her dad. "She's 14 years old and just going into her freshman year in high school, and that's a very traumatic experience in itself without having to go away from home."
If it is, Mary T. will never let on. "I never know how she's doing," says her mother, Floy. "She'll come home from some meet and I'll say, 'Well, how did you do?' And she'll just shrug and say, 'Oh, O.K.' "
"I'll bet that I've told more people that Mary T. is my sister than she's told people she swims," says sister Anne.
Mary T. has collected so many trophies over the years that nobody in the family knows how many there are. Or were. Because of a lack of space, Floy has been forced to throw some out. Mary T. won her first race at five, a 25-yard freestyle. She will tell you that she has "maybe a couple of dozen trophies." Her mother puts the count at more than a hundred. Not to mention countless medals and ribbons.
Chances are that most people know by now that the little Meagher girl (5'5", 118 pounds) is in no danger of drowning; indeed she now shares the limelight with Caulkins, Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead, 15, America's best female sprinter, and Kim Linehan, 16, who set a world record Sunday night in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
At Fort Lauderdale, Caulkins was beaten soundly by Meagher in the 200 fly but came back to win the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and set an American record of 2:33.88 in the 200 breaststroke. Woodhead, from Riverside, Calif., won the 100, 200 and 400 free-styles and was third in the 800. Linehan, who swims for the Longhorn Aquatic Club in Austin, Texas, was timed in 16:04.49 in the 1,500, breaking the record of 16:06.63 set by Australia's Tracey Wickham last February. Linehan had set an American record of 8:24.70 in the 800-meter freestyle earlier in the week.
On the men's side, 18-year-old Jesse Vassallo was one of the stars, winning the 200 and 400 individual medleys. But Vassallo's high school and Mission Viejo teammate, Steve Barnicoat, upset him in the 200-meter backstroke. Rick De-Mont, who had been stripped of a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics (SI, Aug. 20) said he was encouraged by his times in the 800-and 400-meter freestyle relays. However, he failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle finals.
Two Montreal veterans, Gregg in the butterfly and Brian Goodell in the freestyle, look like possible gold medalists at Moscow, too. Goodell, 20, of UCLA and Mission Viejo, won the 400 free in a meet record 3:51.89, his best time in two years, and finished second to Rowdy Gaines in the 200.
U.S. Olympic Coach George Haines, like everybody else at poolside in Fort Lauderdale, was wowed by Mary T.—the Mary T. who emerged dripping and grinning after her world-record daily double, and the prospective Mary T.
"I think she is in a class by herself in the 200 fly," he said. "And she's probably just scratching the surface."
"I don't think much is going to happen between now and next year," said Olympic hero Mark Spitz, on hand to do TV commentary, "but I shudder to think what she could be doing if she continues to swim for, say, an additional four years with the same kind of training techniques."
It's the female butterflyers of the world who should be shuddering.