"You're the coach, Sherm," Betty Meyer replies cheerily.
"Well, I'm not around when the little nut is stuffing herself."
The various shadings of Chavoor's dealings with Debbie came into bolder relief at the national indoor championships last spring in Cincinnati, where Debbie entered the 400-yard IM over the objections of her coach, who felt she had a better chance of winning the 200. His judgment seemed vindicated when Debbie just barely qualified in eighth place in the IM trials. Before the finals Chavoor, whose 60th birthday it was, sat in his motel room complaining to the Meyers, "If she'd listen to me, maybe she'd be a good swimmer some day." Only then did he notice Debbie's solemn face in the doorway.
As she stepped forward for the start of the IM finals Debbie neither waved to friends nor chatted with opponents, as she often does. Her eyes were frozen on the water. She proceeded to win the event in 4:34.2, nine seconds faster than her time in the trials. When Chavoor leaned over at poolside to congratulate her, Debbie planted a kiss on his cheek. "How's that for a birthday present, Sherm?" she asked.
So long as she can summon it at will, Debbie's competitive spirit remains her greatest strength. One rival who inspires her, and she is to be found right there at Arden Hills, is Vicki King, a teenager from St. Louis whose parents sent her to Sacramento to swim for Chavoor three years ago. On her arrival Vicki moved in with the Meyers. In the past year she has emerged as a serious threat to Debbie in distance events. The two girls are not close, and Vicki has since found another home. At practice Chavoor usually divides his swimmers into two groups, and Debbie invariably gravitates toward one, Vicki the other.
Debbie, six months Vicki's elder, sounds a note of conciliation when she says, "I can't hold a grudge against Vicki. All she wants is to knock me off. I knocked other girls off without batting an eyelash."
Another tormentor is Karen Moras, a 16-year-old Australian who twice defeated Debbie when the latter toured Australia last January. It was summer Down Under and Debbie's off season, but the results were a confidence builder for Karen, and it was she who subsequently broke Debbie's record in the 800-meter freestyle, most recently with a 9:02.45 clocking last month in Scotland. Only a week earlier, Debbie had swum the same event in the Santa Clara (Calif.) Invitational in a disappointing 9:14.63, hardly a performance to allay the doubts reflected by one West Coast newspaper headline that read: DEBBIE'S SWIM DYNASTY TOTTERS.
As that suggests, it is tempting to regard anything less than a world record on Debbie's part as a sign she is slipping. The specter haunts nobody more than it does Chavoor, who hopes that his swimmer will become more tenacious as the Munich Olympics draw near. "She's holding back a little now because she doesn't want to hurt as much," he says. "Sometimes I ask myself, am I doing the right thing by torturing her this way? But then I think of all that ability she has. It's driving me fruity."
Both Debbie and Chavoor were reasonably satisfied with her performance at Los Angeles last week. They were enthusiastic over her new freestyle mark—her first world record in more than a year—and Chavoor, who was still nurturing the hope that she would abandon the IM, was pleased when Debbie admitted, "I found out one thing at this meet. My bag is freestyle."
Wherever that revelation leads her, it apparently had the effect for now of unburdening her. Between events she wore any of a dozen-odd T shirts and curled up at poolside reading Coffee, Tea or Me?, the bestseller about airline stewardesses. Debbie pronounced the book "a gas" but fretted over one racy passage purportedly involving an ex-Olympic woman swimmer. "It gave the wrong impression," she said.