The Persistent ringing of an alarm clock in the darkest hour of a moonless night wrests the world's greatest butterflyer from the warm cocoon of sleep. It is 3:45 a.m., and Mary T. Meagher (MAW-her), 23, Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly, staggers from her bed at Daniel and Mary Arris's home in Virginia Beach, Va., to face yet another day of training. At least she doesn't have to face it alone. In the kitchen, Katy Arris, 18, whose swimming specialty is the individual medley, has just finished her morning bowl of cereal. An ABC-TV camera crew is already parked outside the Arris house. It is here to film a little cinema veritè.
Meagher and Arris, knowing the camera crew would be there, have actually gotten out of bed a few minutes early to put on makeup and fuss with their hair. At 4 a.m. they walk out the front door of the house and into the stunningly bright TV lights, pile into Meagher's 1988 red Honda Civic LX with the double gold racing stripe outside and digital everything inside, and head for the Old Dominion Aquatic Club in Norfolk. At 4:10 a.m. Meagher is bombing along Route 44 West at 65 mph, slowing only to slam-dunk a dime into the basket of the automatic toll collector. She punches a Terence Trent D'Arby cassette into the tape deck, turns up the volume and zooms through the darkness.
"This used to be easy," Meagher almost shouts over the music. "Now I have to make a conscious decision every day to get up and go train. It was never that way before. It was something I always took for granted, because I didn't know there were other options in life." Staggering under titles such as the Grande Dame and Madame Butterfly, bestowed on her by the press in recognition of her 22 U.S. championships and three Olympic gold medals as well as the two world records, Meagher is an outgoing yet self-effacing young woman who dislikes "living under constant scrutiny." Which is precisely how it has been since last August, when she went back into training.
To her friends and family she's Mary T. (for Terstegge, her mother's maiden name, to distinguish her from her older sister—she has 10 sisters and one brother—Mary Glen) or just plain T. And no, she didn't know much about options when she set her first world record, 2:09.77 in the 200-meter fly at the 1979 Pan Am Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was just an eighth-grader then who wore railroad-track braces and traveled with a stuffed frog named Bubbles.
Her current world marks in the 100- and 200-meter flys, 57.93 and 2:05.96, respectively, were both set in one incredible meet, the U.S. Long Course Championships at Brown Deer, Wis., in 1981, when she was 16. In a sport in which records are usually broken by hundredths of seconds, she hacked 1.33 off her own 100 mark of 59.26, set a year earlier. Her 200-fly record was better than nearly half the men's times in the meet. They are currently the longest-standing records in women's swimming, and indeed, no one else has even approached those marks.
And now, at an age when most swimmers are well into a second career, Meagher is going for it again, training to make her third Olympic team. She was on the 1980 team that didn't go to Moscow because of the U.S. boycott, and she won three golds in 1984 at Los Angeles, when Moscow & Co. didn't come to us. She says she's going through the boredom and agony of preparing for the Olympics for three reasons, not necessarily in this order: 1) to compete against the best women swimmers in the world, the East Germans; 2) because she has the 17 fastest 200's in the world and would feel bad if she let the U.S. down by staying home; and 3) because—this may be the most important—she wants to break the 200-meter record.
For the last seven years Meagher's nemesis has been a 16-year-old butter-flyer named Mary T. Meagher. That teenager is the one swimmer whose times she has never bettered. In fact, in the years since the 1981 championships in Brown Deer, Meagher's times have gotten slower. "Sometimes I get discouraged and wonder why I'm doing this," says Meagher as she pulls up in front of the J.C. (Scrap) Chandler Pool at 4:30 a.m. "It's hard. I won't lie. This is the hardest year. But I have to try it."
Ten minutes later Meagher is in the 25-yard pool, along with a dozen other swimmers from Old Dominion Aquatic Club, most of them 13 or 14 years old. If one wanted to be kind, the facility could be described as, uh, adequate. The lively cockroach population and poor lighting aside, it's the kind of pool found in Y's built around 1950. It has old-fashioned gutters, the kind where the water splashes against and over a barrier, and the turbulence is fierce when several swimmers are training at once.
Meagher starts swimming warmup laps. The TV cameras have followed her and record every stroke as she begins an all-butterfly set. Bill Peak, her coach, marches up and down the pool deck beside her, shouting, "Rhythm! Hup, hup, hup! Good. Gooood!" Meagher will swim 5,500 yards this morning and another 6,000 yards in a two-hour afternoon training session. "T.'s heart doesn't even start beating until she's swum 3,000 yards," says Peak. "Her bodily functions go way down when she sleeps, so in the morning she practically has no vital life signs."
At the end of her all-fly set he tells her, "Your kick's good, but you're using a lot of leg. You look a little weak back here." He points to his hips and legs. "Are you tired? O.K., swim easy."
Peak is the reason Meagher left her hometown of Louisville, where she had been training with her old club, Lakeside, in a brand-new pool, the Mary T. Meagher Natatorium. He had been the age-group coach at Lakeside when Mary T. was coached to her first world record by Denny Pursley, and had become her coach by the time she set her standing butterfly records. Meagher has had other coaches in other places since then: Karen Moe Thornton at the University of California, where Meagher went to school; Mark Schubert at Mission Viejo, Calif., where she trained the summer before the 1984 Olympics; and, most recently, Monty Hopkins at Lakeside. But for this, surely her last hurrah, she has turned to Peak. "He's like a father figure to me," she says. "I depend on him a lot for my pats on the back and for making me feel worthwhile. I guess that's what I need."
In 1987, shortly before graduating from California, Meagher decided to take a break. She stopped swimming for five months, spent some time in Louisville and did all those things she hadn't been able to do in nearly a lifetime of training. She looked up friends, went to parties and generally led a kid's life. "I realized how much more there was to life than just swimming," she says of her time off. "But it also made it harder to come back, because I'd lost a lot of discipline. I'd always taken that for granted."
Perhaps her lowest point came this past January at a meet in Louisville when she was beaten in the 200 and, though she swam poorly, was still able to win the 100. That's when Meagher put in a call to Peak in Virginia. "When she called, she was crying a little," says Peak. "I said, 'How're you doing?' and she said, 'Not very good.' " Could she come and train with him? Peak told her he would take her, but only if she made the commitment to train for a new world record and not just to make the Olympic team. She said, "Do you still think I could do that?" Peak replied, "I wouldn't lie to you. I think you can."
Before she arrived, Peak had a talk with the swimmers on the Old Dominion club team and told them a world-record holder was coming down to train with them and that she needed their help. "She's trying to do something that few other athletes have ever accomplished," he told them. "Just the simple fact of making a third Olympic team in the butterfly, that's almost unheard-of. She's been at the top of the world since 1979, that's unheard-of. And now she's going to try and come back."
It was a surprisingly easy transition for Meagher. "The enthusiasm and the work ethic of the kids really inspired me," she says. "They all want to be here, and they're excited about swimming." Living and training with Arris also helped. Arris won the 1987 spring and summer nationals in the 200 IM and is hoping to make her first Olympic team. "I love getting a good, hard workout," she says. "And I enjoy going to practice, I don't dread it at all. I try to be real positive around T., and I get her up in the morning when she oversleeps."
But there is a down side to being surrounded by all this youthful exuberance. The teenage swimmers are a constant reminder that, at 23, Meagher simply doesn't have the resilience she once had. "She doesn't recover from one workout to the next anywhere near like she used to," says Peak. "When she was 16, she could do an 8,000-yard workout hard in the morning and again in the afternoon and the next day be ready to go again. She can't do that now."
Peak put her on a weekly training cycle of three hard workouts and one recovery session. Then a moderate workout, two hard, one recovery and two hard. Peak feels that Meagher is slightly ahead of schedule in her training for the Olympic trials in Austin, Texas, which begin on Aug. 8.
Depending on which day you talk to her, Meagher can either be as low as a snake or bubbling with enthusiasm. She often feels frustrated. "The killer instinct isn't there like it used to be, and even though I'm aware of that, there's nothing I can do about it," Meagher says. "Winning just doesn't have the meaning it used to."
Still, she has made progress since going to Virginia Beach. At the nationals in March she narrowly won the 200-meter fly with a 2:10.75 and finished fourth in the 100 with a 1:00.66. At the Sundown Swim To Seoul in Boca Raton, Fla., in May, she was third in the 100 (1:01.40) and again won the 200 (2:11.01). In that meet she also qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter freestyle, which sent her spirits soaring. At the Pepsi Open in Charlotte, N.C., last month, she won both the 100 fly (1:01.19) and the 200 (2:13.37). "When she's rested, shaved and ready to go, the snap and the rhythm will all be back," says Peak. "But it's going to be on a meet-to-meet basis. She has to be really prepared before she's going to look like she did in '81."
Right now, Peak and Meagher are zeroing in on the 200-meter fly mark at the trials on Aug. 13. If she pulls it off, it will be un bel d‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬Æ for Madame Butterfly. Aug. 13 is the date she set the record in Brown Deer. Her competition in the 200 fly at the trials will come from Michelle Griglione and Kara McGrath. If she makes it to Seoul, Mary T. will likely be up against two East Germans, Birte Weigang and Kathleen Nord (2:09.60 and 2:08.85, respectively, in the 200 fly last year). "If she sets a world record at the trials, I guarantee you nobody's going to beat her in Seoul," says Peak.
At 6 a.m., morning practice ends. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Meagher is longing to get home and have breakfast. Instead, she sits on the lawn outside the swim center for an interview with the TV people. After 20 minutes she and Arris hop in the Honda and beeline back home. T. will eat a bowl of cereal, make phone calls, write letters and take a nap. At least that's what she says she's going to do. Her semiboyfriend, Gary Antonick, 25, who has been training at the Chandler pool to swim the English Channel, knows better. "She never slows down," he says. "She never sleeps. Every day she says, 'I'm going to rest tomorrow.' It's like her theme. She never rests. She's just nonstop.
"It's really strange talking to her about those world records, you know, when she set them years ago," he says. "She says she had no idea what was going on then. She was swimming, swimming, swimming—set a world record, neat, wow!—and then she just kept going. Now, of course, everything has dawned on her. She went superfast that one time, and she's confused. She doesn't really know what happened. It would be nice if she knew that secret formula. But she doesn't."
She still can try, though. "There are a lot of people who question whether or not I'm too old and whether or not I can do it again," Meagher says. "The butterfly was always something that came naturally to me. It was something I took for granted. Now I have to make a conscious decision to do this. If I don't do well, I think I'll be able to handle it. And if I do do well, I think for the first time I will feel I really deserve it."