SOME FAST WOMEN, BUT FEW FREE MEN

While Mary T. Meagher, who set two world records in the butterfly, and other ladies excelled at the U.S. long course championships, there was a serious drought in the male freestyle events
August 23, 1981

At the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in suburban Milwaukee last Wednesday, Mary T. Meagher's coach, Bill Peak, was explaining why Mary T. doesn't swim well in morning preliminaries. "It's her metabolism," he said. "If you take her pulse while she's sleeping, you'll find that she's virtually dead. That can make it tough to get going."

But when the U.S. long course championships began at Schroeder the next morning—indoors for only the third time in 80 years—the greatest woman butterflyer in history looked full of life. Meagher, 16, quickly opened up a lead of several body lengths in her heat of the 200-meter fly, then eased off slightly, mindful of reserving strength for the evening final. Nevertheless, she still won by nearly 3½ seconds, finishing in 2:09.55, the eighth-fastest time ever.

Considering that six of the seven best times also are Mary T.'s, it was hardly surprising that she would soon provide the four-day meet with more than just a bracing morning swim. However, several of the meet's other developments were less foreseeable. Although the U.S. is desperate for top-of-the-line male freestylers, for example, not one candidate really distinguished himself; instead, the four freestyle swimmers who stood out were two teen-age women and two men, a dazzling but inconsistent Samoan sprinter and a previously retired 22-year-old from Jesup, Ga., who made a comeback with the aid of surgical tubing, plastic cups, pulleys, wires and milk crates full of weights.

Jesse Vassallo, world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, abruptly ended two years of frustration, in which he was unable to improve his times, by winning two events and coming within .38 of his IM record. And despite a fast pool and talk that more world records would be broken than at any other U.S. meet since the 1972 Olympic Trials (where 12 marks fell), only two world records were set.

Tracy Caulkins, who had hoped to surpass as many as four world marks herself, got zilch, though she did win four events (both breaststrokes and both IMs) to raise her career total of national titles to 35, only one short of Johnny Weissmuller's record. "The atmosphere just isn't what I thought it would be," she said, bewildered and disappointed by her showing.

Caulkins had already come within .05 of her own American record in winning the 200 breaststroke on Thursday night, when Mary T. returned to the starting platform for her final. Meagher's strategy in going after her 200 fly world record of 2:06.37 was to swim four 50-meter splits that were approximately equal; in setting the record back in July 1980, she had swum a blazing first 50 and then tailed off.

And indeed, this time she swam the first 50 in 29.5—.8 off her world-record pace, but just what she and Peak had wanted. By 75 meters she had a two-body-length lead and was well into her graceful, high-arching churn: two strokes, then a breath. ("That perfect rhythm, the timing was something she had naturally when she was 10," says Peak. "No coach can take credit for it.") Successive splits near 32 seconds sent Meagher into the final 50 .69 behind her record pace, but not to worry; she has built her endurance with non-stop butterfly workouts of as long as 1,600 meters, an incredible distance over which to sustain swimming's most exhausting stroke. That, and a roaring, whistling crowd that was waving hands, towels and programs over their heads, carried her down the final length. As she hit the touch-pad, the scoreboard flashed 2:05.96. She had lowered the world record by nearly half a second.

After waving to her parents, who were sitting in a balcony above the pool, Meagher hopped out of the water and went directly to Peak. It seems she had been a bit concerned about the problems created by bright TV lights shining on her wet bathing suit. "Could you see through?" she asked.

"Of course. Everybody could," said Peak. But he was unable to maintain a sober face, and Mary T. smacked him on the arm. "You!" she cried.

Swimming is fun again for Meagher, something it wasn't just a year ago, when she "was for sure going to quit" in frustration over the Olympic boycott. It helps now that Peak has her on a less rigid training program that allows her to play field hockey at school and requires only one-a-day workouts for part of the year. But what persuaded her not to quit was a trip to China with the national team last August. She spent a lot of time with 17-year-old Sippy Woodhead, the world-record holder in the 200 free and someone with whom Meagher could identify. "Sippy kept talking about how she was going to stick with it until the Olympics," says Meagher. "I guess it rubbed off." Mary T. apparently picked up some of Woodhead's unabashedness, too. In Canton, the team put together a mock Gong Show, in which Caulkins, Woodhead and two other swimmers imitated the punk band the B-52's and sang that classic, Rock Lobster. Mary T., two swim paddles in each hand for pincers, portrayed a dancing lobster. "At least we didn't get gonged," she says.

To see Mary T. today is to note a sharp contrast with the 14-year-old from Louisville who shocked the swimming world in 1979 by breaking the world 200 butterfly record three times in her first year of senior-level competition. She has grown two inches to 5'7", added 10 pounds to 128 pounds, and discarded her braces and the stuffed animals she used to bring to meets. No longer does she answer every question with just yes or no; she even talks of beginning college one year ahead of schedule, in 1982, and maybe studying communications.

She also now dominates her event more completely than any other woman swimmer in the world. Mary T. has 10 of the 11 fastest 200 fly times and four of the top five for the 100 fly. Her butterfly record since 1976 shows only one defeat: to Jill Sterkel in a 100-yard short course race in April. In Milwaukee, on Sunday evening, she and Sterkel would meet again in the 100 fly finals.

Meanwhile, the most pressing question of the meet was where have all the male freestyle swimmers gone? "We're in trouble that we've never been in before," said Brian Goodell, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 and 1,500 free, who was at the meet as a spectator. "As long as I've been around, we've owned the free." That changed last year because of retirements. Gone are Goodell, Mike Bruner, Rowdy Gaines and others—among them the American record holders in every Olympic freestyle event. "A lot of people just realized that they couldn't hang on until 1984," said Goodell.

Unfortunately, the men's freestyle competition at the long course meet did little to clarify who the new stars will be. After two days of inconclusive results, Olympic backstroke champion John Naber said, "No one winning these races would necessarily win the same race a month from now."

Two troubling freestyle champions were Robin Leamy and David Larson, who won the 50 and the 200, respectively. Leamy, a UCLA senior from Apia, Western Samoa, lowered Joe Bottom's American 50-meter record from 22.71 seconds to 22.54 in Saturday's preliminaries. But Leamy has a history of wasting good performances in the heats, as at the 1981 NCAAs, where he broke Bottom's 50-yard record in the preliminaries and then lost in the finals. "I feel more pressure in the prelims," Leamy says. "I see all those people and keep thinking 'I have to beat them all.' " In any case, his favorite event is too short for either the Olympics or world-record recognition. "A 50 can involve very much luck," Leamy concedes.

Larson had to be the most unlikely winner of the entire meet, and the one with the dimmest competitive future. He stopped swimming entirely between April and June, and since June he has been in the water only an hour a day. His coach at the University of Florida, Randy Reese, coaxed him back into the sport by suggesting that he do all his workouts using "bands, belts and baskets"—various homemade training devices dreamed up by Reese. "Bands" are long sections of thick surgical tubing attached to a swimmer and a pool wall, while "belts" have plastic cups on them that increase a swimmer's drag and "baskets" are plastic milk crates filled with barbell weights and hooked by rope and pulley onto the swimmer. In each case, the man in the water has a difficult time of it, so an entire workout can be completed in 30 minutes.

Larson swam so powerfully when he wasn't strapped into anything in Friday's 200 free that he not only won the event but did it by surging in the final 20 meters. His winning time of 1:50.86 was a personal best by .93 seconds. Alas, shortly after that victory he said he would once again retire from the sport, at the end of the summer, leaving the U.S. with yet another, national freestyle champion to replace. In the end, six different swimmers had won the six men's freestyle events, and only Leamy had established any sort of record.

The women weren't particularly looking for new freestyle distance swimmers, but found two talented ones anyway. Marybeth Linzmeier, a tall, lean 18-year-old with a record of consistent top-five finishes in national meets, won her first long course title (800 free) and then her second (200 free) and her third (1,500 free). She nearly won one more, the 400 free. Quiet and self-effacing, Linzmeier suggested that a major factor in her victories had been homesickness; after three years of training with the Mission Viejo team she had returned home to Visalia, Calif. last November for a three-month break from the sport. "I wanted to see my own sheets and pillow for longer than a weekend," she said. "And I needed to be away from swimming."

Perhaps more talented than Linzmeier, however, is her 108-pound teammate at Mission Viejo, Tiffany Cohen. Cohen, barely 15 yet swimming in her fourth nationals, placed in the top eight behind Linzmeier in the 800 and 200, then shocked everyone when she won Saturday's 400 free by overtaking Marybeth in the final 50 meters. "I don't know [scrunching up nose], it was, like, exciting or something, passing her," said Tiffany with a certain cockiness after the race. Her time of 4:09.77 made her the third-fastest American ever in the event.

Cohen's method of dealing with the boredom of 15,000 to 20,000 meters of training each day is to sing to herself, usually rock music. As she—by her description—struggled through Thursday's 800, she tried to push herself by singing a Foreigner song called Urgent. "I really like R.E.O. Speedwagon," she says. Her mother presumably has different tastes; she named her daughter after, in Tiffany's words, "some restaurant she always wanted to eat in. I think there's a jewelry store called that, too."

In Sunday's 1,500 Cohen led for 500 of the final 750 meters, but faded to finish second, 1.4 seconds behind Linzmeier. Most of the evening's attention, however, was focused on Mary T. She had tried a couple of freestyle races herself on Friday and Saturday, finishing second to Linzmeier in the 200 and qualifying 12th in the 400 before scratching from the consolation finals. Finally, though, it was time for her to face up to Sterkel in the 100 fly and to try to break her own 59.26 world record.

Twenty-five meters into that race, Meagher was slightly in front of Sterkel, but seemed not to be able to break away. Suddenly, however, it looked as if all of Mary T.'s opponents were hooked up to some of Larson's surgical tubing. She began widening her lead dramatically, making her turn in 27.75—.49 under her world-record pace. As the crowd watched in awe, Meagher extended her lead to two, then three body lengths as she drove toward the finish. When she touched, the clock read 57.93, an astonishing 1.33 below her old record. Sterkel finished fifth, more than 3½ seconds behind, and Meagher's closest pursuer had been nearly three seconds back. Mary T. had given the record-starved meet one of the most remarkable performances in swimming history.

"I just wish there was somebody who could really push Mary T.," Peak had said earlier, "especially in the 200. But there doesn't seem to be anybody around who can touch her. I don't know. Maybe Tracy?"

More likely no one.

TWO PHOTOSIn the 200 fly, Meagher cut almost half a second off the record, and got a certificate to prove it. TWO PHOTOSCaulkins huffed, puffed and blew away all opposition in the 400 individual medley. PHOTOThe laid-back Larson says he's retiring—again. PHOTOVassallo, ending a two-year dry spell, improved his times in the 200 and 400 IMs. PHOTOIn a moment of repose, Cohen stokes up on rock, which helps relieve the long hours of training.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)