Debbie Meyer, who won three gold medals in the 1968 Olympic Games, thought about retiring from swimming for two years before she actually did it. On Jan. 10, 1972, when she climbed out of the pool after a practice, she told her mother that she was never going back. "She had said that before but always cried," says Betty Meyer. "When she didn't cry this time, I knew it was the end." The Munich Olympics were less than a year away, and Meyer had a good chance to repeat her Mexico City triple. But she wasn't interested. "When the motivation is gone and workouts become a chore, you stop," she says. "Even if you're only 19."
There is no golden-age home for retired athletes barely out of their teens. Nobody offers them gold watches or Social Security, and there are no chapters of Champions Anonymous to save them from growing sad and flabby. Some young athletes handle the transition from champ to ex-champ gracefully, but for others it's an occasion for soul-searching and identity crises. Like many of those who retire at 65, they face financial problems and the ponderous question: What next?
Debbie Meyer's retirement did not begin auspiciously. Eager to try something that had been forbidden while she was in training, she went to Lake Tahoe for a ski weekend, and on her first run down the beginner's hill—zap! a broken ankle. The mishap didn't seem important. Because she no longer had to adhere to the Olympic vow of poverty, Meyer conceivably could have sat back and picked up some big-money endorsements. But the Mark Spitz course on "How to Package a Star Athlete" wasn't available, and Meyer didn't know how to proceed. CBS signed her on to do occasional commentary on Sports Spectacular, and she worked for the Speedo swimsuit people, but that was it. "After all the times I'd said that I owed my success to Skippy peanut butter, I thought sure I'd get to do some commercials for them," she says. "But I had received my publicity a few years earlier, and now there wasn't any interest."
As a teen-ager, Meyer set 15 world records and 28 individual American records. Along with her Olympic triumphs at 16, she won just about every award that any organization in the world—from the Soviet news agency to the AAU—had to bestow on an amateur athlete. While her high school classmates in Sacramento, Calif. worried about boyfriends and fraternity pins, Meyer thought about getting to bed by 9 p.m. in order to be rested for her early-morning workouts. Usually when she dated, she was in a group with other swimmers who had been approved by her coach Sherm Chavoor. For Meyer, the world was divided into swimmers and non-swimmers rather than boys and girls. She had a strong sense of herself as an athlete, a good athlete, and that was enough.
But it wasn't enough when she finally left swimming. All at once the real world was more chilling than an early-morning swimming pool. "I didn't know what people who weren't swimmers were supposed to be like," she says, "and it suddenly occurred to me that everyone saw me as an athlete instead of as a normal woman." After giving up swimming cold turkey, Meyer sat home with her broken ankle and had an existential crisis. Depressed by the changes in her life, she tried to cheer herself with food. "All she did was hobble back and forth to the refrigerator," says her mother. Eventually, on her swimmer's diet of 6,000 calories a day, the 5'9" Meyer ballooned from her competitive weight of 130 pounds to 180. "At first I was glad to get off the muscles and lose my jock image," she says. "But then I started building fat on fat and I was so ashamed of myself. The more ashamed I got, the more I ate."
By the next fall, Meyer realized that she had to do something to break the circle of self-doubt. She transferred from American River College to UCLA, but the move didn't help much. Surrounded by long-limbed supersvelte California girls, she hid in her room, trying to remain anonymous. On top of that her father had been offered a job in the Philippines, and her family was moving to Manila. "Usually children grow up and leave their parents," says Betty Meyer, "but this time we did the leaving, and I think Debbie was hurt."
Unhappy at UCLA, Debbie transferred to the University of California at Davis, but left after six months. Various doctors had given her weight-reducing prescriptions that hadn't worked; now she decided it was time to really diet. She limited her intake to about 800 calories a day: a little chicken with curry powder, a quarter-cup of rice, some vegetables and a taste of fruit. In a few months she weighed 108. She went to the Philippines to visit her parents and her diet was over. "My mother went to hug me and there was nothing left to hug," Debbie says. "She got on the phone to her doctor, and I was in his office the next morning. He diagnosed anorexia nervosa, low potassium, urinary-tract problems, low blood pressure, anemia and broken capillaries. I was so proud of being thin that I didn't even know anything was wrong."
It took about five months for Meyer to coax her weight up to 120 pounds. Back in California, she worked with Sherm Chavoor, coaching young kids at his club, Arden Hills. "You can't imagine how nice it was to be waking up early in the morning and going to a pool again," she says.
Then, a year ago, Meyer was offered a position as assistant swim coach for men and women at Stanford. Deciding it was time to start leading her own life, she moved to Palo Alto.
At the end of her first season at Stanford, Meyer's confidence was up. The men's team came in seventh in the NCAA meet in March, up three positions from last year, and the women's team finished second in the AIAW championship. "There were a few headaches," she says, "but I realized how much I still loved swimming." In April, her parents came over from the Philippines to see her inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In May, Meyer announced that she was once again moving on. Dale Aigner, president of Speedo International Limited, had convinced her to join the promotion department of his company on a full-time basis. "I've proved to myself I can coach," she says. "Now I want to prove I can be a businesswoman." Her salary at Stanford was only $5,400; Aigner offered her a lucrative contract with benefits that include a company car. "It's taken a long time," says Debbie Meyer, "but I guess I'm all grown up now."