If this sounds ominously like the kind of buildup that preceded Mark Spitz' disappointing showing in Mexico, the parallel is not lost on Debbie, who realizes that she has reached an age at which many female swimmers have faltered. This has less to do with any biological facts of life, as is sometimes supposed, than it does with motivation. Unlike their male counterparts, who have a full program of college competition and scholarships to spur them on, the incentives for women swimmers, apart from the Olympics, consist of just three or four big meets a year. The matter of incentives is important because staving on top in swimming requires much the same dogged work as getting there, which is not the case, say, in playing king—or queen—of the mountain.
Of her situation today Debbie Meyer says, "I'd better watch out or else one of these 13-year-olds is going to come along and beat me." She says it without cracking a smile, as if recalling her own rise to the top, one that occurred so quickly and unexpectedly that her father still shakes his head and marvels, "Sometimes I can't get over living with a champion." Debbie was 8, hardly young by the standards of the sport, when Bud and Betty Meyer started her in competitive swimming back in Haddonfield, N.J., and by the time Meyer, a plant executive for Campbell Soup Co., was transferred to Sacramento in 1965 his 12-year-old daughter was still an also-swam in local AAU county meets.
Arriving at Arden Hills, Debbie plunged eagerly into the pool only to drag herself out, too exhausted to even complete Chavoor's arduous daily workouts. But she responded to the challenge and her growing strength, on top of a classic stroke, made her a natural for Chavoor's racing strategy, which is to go out in front and stay there. It was only a matter of months before Chavoor jubilantly told the Meyers, "I think we've got ourselves a champion." In July 1967, barely two years after moving to California, Debbie set her first world record, lowering the old mark in the 400 freestyle by more than five seconds.
Other world records fell apace, including those three in a single week at the 1968 Olympic Trials. While Debbie was training with the U.S. team in Colorado Springs her father sent her a card reading: HAPPINESS IS A GOLD MEDAL. The card came back, its message altered in a girlish hand to read: HAPPINESS IS THREE GOLD MEDALS. When Debbie returned from Mexico, Rio Americano High closed for the afternoon to honor her and its other Olympic swimmers, Arden Hills teammates Sue Pedersen, Vicki King and Johnny Ferris.
Rio Americano, a suburban-style school designed in the soft pastels and cool lines of a Kleenex box, boasts other assets besides good swimmers, including a well-stocked resource center, this being the kind of facility known at less-favored schools as the library. What with her underwater study habits, Debbie hit the resources hard enough to maintain a B average, although she had cause to wonder about one of those Bs. It was in swimming, precision swimming, actually, and her problem, in effect, was that she did not swim slowly enough to comply with the easy, rhythmic style prescribed by the course. Moved by the irony of it all, the queen of the swimmers proudly showed her B in swimming around for all to see.
The time she devoted to her sport, along with the fame she achieved in return, tended to set Debbie somewhat apart from her classmates. The inscriptions they entered in her school yearbook were short on breezy familiarities ("Love ya, Deb") and long on formalities bordering on the ceremonial. "I must admit I was very honored to know you," one classmate wrote, while another signed, "From a devout swimming fan." More casual, if no less awed, was the boy who wrote, "Be cool, keep the faith and don't turn into a fish."
"I could have become more involved in high school," Debbie admits. "I missed some of the action, things like dances and football games. And I wish I'd dated more often." As part of a deliberate effort to play down swimming, her bedroom is adorned with the inevitable Paul Newman poster and strewn with record albums—everything from Andy Williams to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—but she has long since cleared away her trophies and medals. "It used to be embarrassing when kids came over," she explains. It is for similar reasons that she abides the display of only one trophy in the family living room: the Sullivan Award she won as the nation's top amateur athlete of 1968.
Debbie has benefited from the kind of parental sacrifice so common in swimming. Soon after the family's arrival in Sacramento, Bud Meyer was transferred again, this time to Modesto, Calif., but he has elected to commute 140 miles round trip ever since, rather than take Debbie away from Chavoor. Still, the Meyers are careful not to compound her pressures. "The moment swimming isn't fun any more you better quit," her father advises and Debbie replies, "If my parents were pushy I think I would have quit long ago."
The Meyers' laissez-faire approach is also appreciated by Chavoor, who can think of plenty of overbearing swimming parents who might do well to follow their example. "When their kid wins it's heredity," he says of such people. "When their kid loses, it's the coach." Lately, though, Chavoor has actually turned to the Meyers for assistance in handling Debbie, with the result that the delicate triangular relationship between coach, parents and swimmer has been buffeted by gentle shock waves running along the hypotenuse.
One problem that concerns Chavoor is Debbie's weight, currently 127 pounds, eight pounds more than at the Olympics. In the Meyer kitchen Debbie has posted two clippings on the refrigerator, one a diet for shedding pounds quickly, the other a recipe for butterscotch squares. To the Meyers, Chavoor urgently pleads, "We've got to do something about her weight."