The U.S. Olympic women swimmers of 1976 swept into Montreal a proud dynasty and were staggered to win but a single relay. They slammed into final wall after final wall in world-record time and found large, muscular athletes in blue already there, chatting gutturally.
Female swimmers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had never before won an Olympic gold, yet in Montreal they massacred the rest of the world, taking gold medals in 11 of 13 events and setting eight world records. Their flagship was Kornelia Ender, 17, who won the 100 and 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly and anchored the winning 400-medley relay team, all in world-record times.
The embodiment of the battered U.S. team was Shirley Babashoff, 19, of Fountain Valley, Calif., who swam an astounding range of races—the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles and both relays—but lost the sprints to Ender and the distances to 15-year-old Petra Thümer. When Thümer outkicked Babashoff in the 800, it was Babashoff's fourth straight silver medal. Unbowed, she came back an hour and 45 minutes later to anchor the U.S. to its lone win, in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
Questions flew. What did the East German women have this time that they hadn't had four years earlier in Munich?
No definitive answer was forthcoming until 1991, after the Berlin Wall toppled, when 20 former GDR swim coaches admitted that they had given anabolic steroids to some, not all, of their swimmers in the 1970s and '80s. Of course, the U.S. swimmers had known this. "It was too obvious for me not to say something," says Babashoff, who has always been blunt. "Even before Montreal, I said I didn't feel comfortable in the changing room with, uh, people that big, that hairy, that baritone." But when no East German swimmer tested positive (some may have stopped taking—or being given—steroids before the '76 Games to clear detectable traces from their urine), Babashoff was dubbed Surly Shirley in newspaper editorials and repudiated by even some U.S. coaches.
"The whole thing was heartbreaking at the time," Babashoff says now. "But I've mended." Perhaps not completely, judging by her next words: "Just the same, what is the statute of limitations on cheating?"
But was Ender, in fact, one of those who cheated? Has she spent the last 16 years basking in unwarranted esteem? And was Babashoff's life blighted by the injustice she suffered? The story of what has befallen the two great antagonists of the '76 Games inevitably intertwines what was and what might have been.
Babashoff, now 35, sits in her blue Dodge van in the parking lot outside Tamura School in Fountain Valley. She is hurriedly writing a check for her son Adam's school fees before his kindergarten class is let out for the day. She wears shorts and a sweatshirt with a greatly enlarged 13-cent Colorado Centennial stamp printed on it. She is less willowy than when she raced, having taken on some of the solidity that was Ender's trademark.
"I got married in 1978," Babashoff is saying. "Divorced in 1980. I don't remember his name. I don't. No, he isn't the father of my son. I never remarried. Give me some credit. Adam's father is a state lifeguard. He visits Saturdays. He's a gun guy. He brought over a BB gun for Adam. He loaded it, and when he was putting up a target, Adam shot him in the back." Babashoff's regret is well hidden.
The door to classroom A-1 bursts open. Six-year-old Adam, his hair bushy and red, forces his way through a stream of beautifully dressed girls and polite boys and runs to Babashoff. She swings him around as if he's a very small square dancer, and they both run to the school office to pay his fees. Babashoff's energy is arresting in one so momlike.