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In 1972 the best female swimmer in the world was Shane Gould of Australia. She held every world record in the freestyle events, from the minute-long frenzy of the 100 to the 1,500, a race lasting more than a quarter of an hour.
That year, in the U.S. Olympic Trials at Chicago's Portage Park, two 15-year-old girls broke Gould's records for the 200 and the 800—Shirley Babashoff of Fountain Valley, Calif. at 200 meters and Jo Harshbarger of Bellevue, Wash, at 800. A couple of weeks later Harshbarger received a postcard from Gould in Australia that read, "Congratulations. See you in Munich." Babashoff didn't receive one.
Sensing psychological warfare in the snub, a reporter in Munich cornered Babashoff, then a shy, skinny newcomer to international competition, and asked if it bothered her to be ignored by Gould. Babashoff said, "I don't feel ignored. I'm sure she knows I'm here." (Indeed, Gould did. They met head-to-head in the 100 and 200. In the former, Shirley won the silver, Shane the bronze; in the latter, Shane won the gold, Shirley the silver.)
That was, and still is, Shirley Babashoff. Calm, confident, stubborn, with a balanced view of her own importance. And those are the qualities which have enabled her to survive to the age of 19 in a sport that chews up adolescent girls and spits them out at 16 or 17 with their competitive fires extinguished. Now at the peak of her physical powers, Babashoff is by far the best female swimmer in this country. Until early this month she had the world record for the 400-meter freestyle—the only women's mark held by an American—and American records in the 100-and 200-meters freestyles. On June 3, however, during the East German Championships in East Berlin—perhaps the most extraordinary meet ever held, with 14 world records set—Barbara Krause lowered Babashoff's mark by 3.07 seconds (to 4:11.69). Whether Shirley can regain her eminence will be made clear during the Montreal Olympics. In her most recent major international competition, the World Aquatic Championships in Cali, Colombia last July, Babashoff entered seven events. She won the 200 and the 400 free, was second in the 100 free, third in the 800 and fourth in the 200-meter individual medley. She also anchored both U.S. relay teams to second-place finishes behind East Germany.
Babashoff's win in the 200, by .19 of a second over world-record holder Kornelia Ender of East Germany, had been a classic confrontation between the best sprinter in the world and the best middle-distance swimmer in the world, at a distance between their specialties. Ender, the drop-dead sprinter, swam the first 100 meters in a time close to her own world record for the event. Her strategy was obvious: build an insurmountable lead and hold on. Babashoff, the pacer, plotted her race and stuck to the plan. "I saw Ender at 25 meters and from there I never looked for her until the end," she said. "I didn't know I had won until I looked at the clock."
In 1972 the world of women's swimming was divided up between Australia and the U.S. Occasionally a record would slip away from the two powers and into the hands of a Japanese or a South African, but at the end of that year, out of a possible 15 world records, the American women held seven and the Australians six.
In 1973 the old order crumbled. The scene of the coup was the first World Aquatic Championships in Belgrade. East Germany, a team that had not quite reached the top rank by Munich but which had shown considerable promise with four second-place finishes, had stunningly improved, thanks to a new emphasis on weight training. Furthermore, it had acquired revolutionary new competition suits that fit like a second, tauter skin and weighed four negligible ounces. The new outfits, with their high-cut necks and recessed armholes, also served to emphasize the width of the frauleins' already broad shoulders, a most disheartening sight for the opposition.
Even more disheartening was what the German girls did in the medley relay on the first day of the championships. With world-record-equivalent times on each of the four legs, and with Ender swimming the freestyle anchor leg, they beat the American girls, anchored by Babashoff, by eight body lengths. At the final count 10 days later the East Germans had won 10 of the 14 events and had set seven world records.
"After the first day we kind of gave up," said Babashoff, who, though disappointed, came back from Belgrade with four silver medals. "We didn't expect them to be so big or to have gotten so much better or to have the new suit. When you have one good swim then the whole team does good. It's a chain reaction. Our team went just the opposite way. We should have done better. They surprised us."
Nothing has been the same since. Everyone lifts weights. Everyone wears skin suits. Every team does interval training. Nevertheless, the East Germans now hold world records in every Olympic swimming event.