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Until the spell was broken following the 1968 Olympics, Debbie Meyer swam as if possessed, her tender years firing her to a high competitive pitch. If her three-hour-a-day workouts allowed little time for the demands of high school, it made no difference to the California teen-ager, who blithely recited homework to herself as she reeled off practice laps. In view of the three gold-medals she subsequently won in Mexico City, it was appropriate that one assignment she fulfilled in that fashion was to memorize Mark Antony's oration in praise of the all-conquering Caesar.
More recently, if no less fittingly, Debbie's submarine Shakespeare has included Hamlet's "'to be or not to be" soliloquy. On her return from Mexico she suffered a classic post-Olympic letdown. She moped around her parents' ranch-style home in Sacramento agonizing openly and at length over whether to retire from swimming. Having realized her heart's desire at the Olympics, she now had few new experiences in swimming to look forward to—except possibly the wholly unwelcome one of losing. Only this past spring did Debbie finally decide to remain in the swim until the 1972 Olympics. "I want to defend my Olympic titles," she declared, her old desire beginning to smolder. "I'd like to stay en top a while longer."
Debbie's resolve will be getting a thoroughgoing test. Earlier this month she turned 18, which in the compressed world of women's swimming makes her, strange though it may sound, one of the sport's venerable figures. The changes that have come over her are pleasant enough. While nobody was looking she has sneaked up to 5'7½", nearly three inches taller than when she set her first world record at 14. Her button cuteness has ripened into a dimple-cheeked prettiness. Most wondrous of all, such expressions as "crummy" and "go jump in the lake" have separated themselves from her vocabulary like chaff from the grain.
If the passage of time has affected Debbie's swimming, it was not immediately evident at last week's AAU outdoor championships in Los Angeles. On opening night, she pared nearly two-tenths of a second off her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4:24.343. The next evening, however, she finished only third in the 400-meter individual medley, both her backstroke and breaststroke failing her. Returning to the freestyle on Sunday, Debbie easily won the 1,500. Although she failed to break the 800- or 1,500-meter records, as she had hoped, she said afterward, "I'm just satisfied I won."
Debbie's performance in the 400 free was just one among 13 world records broken at the meet, which can only enhance the reputation of the Los Angeles Swim Stadium as one of the world's fastest pools. The suggestion that a swimming pool can be fast, the same as a track, may sound as if somebody had gone out and invented AstroWater, but in fact, the explanation has to do with the pool, not the water in it. Built for the 1932 Olympics and situated inspirationally in the shadow of the Los Angeles Coliseum, it is, quite simply, deeper—five feet at the shallowest point—than other pools, which generally taper to 3½ feet or less. This reduces waves that can slow a swimmer down. Something that accomplishes the same thing is the conformation of the gutters in the Swim Stadium, which tend to trap waves rather than allow them to wash back into the pool.
Probably the main reason that the Swim Stadium is fast, though, is that swimmers like Debbie Meyer, who set three world records there in the 1968 Olympic Trials, have come to consider it so. Before leaving for the AAUs, Debbie put up a sign in her bedroom in Sacramento reading, "L.A. Is the Fastest Pool in the West." "Swimming in this pool is like being on a surfboard and having somebody push you," said Debbie, who demonstrated that she still is—when she wants to be—the fastest female afloat.
The key question, of course, is how badly she really wants to be. Having graduated in June from Sacramento's Rio Americano High School, Debbie will enroll next month at American River College, a local two-year school. That will enable her to live at home and continue training with Sherm Chavoor, her coach at the Arden Hills Swim Club, a taskmaster who stresses endurance and obedience and thinks nothing of bellowing at his star swimmer, "Come on, you little nut, stop loafing. Show me some guts. You're driving me fruity."
Unfortunately, swimming is not fully compatible with growing up, this being a clear case of two kinds of pain competing jealously for the same victim. Despite her determination to continue swimming Debbie has lately been more balky ("how come no rest between laps, huh, Sherm?") than obedient. That may sometimes strain but has never actually impaired the affection that exists between Chavoor and herself. Asked not long ago whether theirs was a love-hate relationship, she answered softly, "Yes, but the hate is temporary and the love is permanent."
The pressures at work on Debbie were apparent over the weekend of her high school graduation, which was held in Sacramento's colonnaded municipal auditorium. Seated among her classmates Debbie fidgeted with her program, exchanged whispers with the boy next to her and scanned the balcony for a glimpse of her parents and three brothers. Suddenly she stirred to the sound of her name. "The valedictorian and salutatorian of the female sports world," the speaker said and Debbie, a tassel bobbing before her blue eyes like an insistent fly, arose to friendly applause. She appeared poised although, as she confided afterward, "I couldn't have been more embarrassed."
Later that evening Debbie attended the Class of 1970's all-night party at a bowling alley, but only after pausing to celebrate at home with her family. The first thing she did on entering the house was to make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a food that has been such a favorite of hers that a local sports-writer once tried to dub her "Peanut." The name didn't stick but the peanut butter did and Debbie, in honor of the occasion, washed it down with champagne.