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Mary T. Meagher is 14 years old, has braces on her teeth and a toy stuffed frog named Bubbles. She is learning needlepoint and has a nervous giggle, and her schoolmates call her "Fishy." She is indeed at home in the water, for she is one of those American swimmers who seem to go directly from puberty to the Olympic Games.
Fishy Meagher is the brightest U.S. hope for gold medals in the women's butterfly events in Moscow. Last week at the AAU National Long Course Championships in steamy Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she set an American record in the 100-meter butterfly (1:00.19). Not bad for a kid who has yet to start the ninth grade, but in an even more impressive performance she chewed big chunks off her own world 200-meter butterfly record of 2:09.77, set five weeks before at the Pan-Am Games. In the prelims the first day of the meet she lowered it to 2:08.41. In the final that night she dropped it to 2:07.01, surging through the water as if an Everglades alligator were snapping at her heels.
On the whole, though, the AAU meet wasn't a prime showcase for records, or even good times. The event was staged in a 50-meter pool adjacent to the Swimming Hall of Fame, on a peninsula jutting into the Intracoastal Waterway only a short block from the beach. The humidity was only a bit lower than it is in Rangoon. The water in the Hall of Fame pool wasn't Jacuzzi-hot, but it wasn't cool and stimulating either. The pool was also shallow (three and a half feet deep at each end), so there was too much turbulence.
For those reasons most of the performances didn't shake the foundations of the hall next door, or make any of the coaches stare in amazement at their stopwatches. Which makes Meagher's feats even more impressive. In cool, deep water, there is no telling what she might have done.
Steve Gregg, the silver medalist in the 200 fly at the Montreal Olympics and now a graduate student in physiology at the University of Arizona, watched from the stands as Meagher churned to her 2:07.01. Two days later, after his own impressive win in the men's 200, he was still excited by Mary T.'s exploits.
"I remember when that was a good time for me, a man," he said. "That's a heck of a swim. I know that 2:07.01 is awful fast. If you look through the times this morning, a lot of men went slower than that. A lot of men. [Only five, actually.] That is an awesome swim."
Mary T. Meagher (pronounced MAW-her) is called Mary T. because the oldest of her 10 siblings is also a Mary, Mary G. The "T" stands for Terstegge, her mother's maiden name. Her dad is a prosperous businessman (a handy thing when you have 11 children), chairman of the board of a company that distributes hardware and manufactures fireplace fixtures, toolboxes and tackle boxes.
The Meaghers live in Louisville, where Mary T. learned to swim at a country club when she was four. A few years later her older brother Jimmy, now 25 and an ex-butterfly record holder at Notre Dame, took her aside and gave her some tips in his specialty, never dreaming he was pointing her toward Moscow in 1980. Last fall she left the country club team and joined Louisville's Lakeside Swim Club, coached by Denny Pursley.
Pursley quickly saw that "she has a very unusual ability to maintain a constant speed at near maximum exertion for long periods of time," and he proceeded to assign her a workout schedule that would discourage a porpoise.
"If there's a sport more demanding as far as hours and effort expended are concerned," says Pursley, "I'd like to know what it is. You train 10 miles a day, five hours a day in the water, plus working with weights, year round. It takes four times longer to swim 10 miles than it does to run 10 miles. It's the most boring sport to train for. You can't see anything, you can't hear anything, and it's monotonous. If you're a runner, you can at least enjoy the scenery and listen to the birds."