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 verit�.
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."