When she was pregnant in 1966, Shirley Cohen, a Westchester, Calif. housewife and retired age-group swimmer, saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. "If I had a girl she was going to be named either Fawn Lisa or Tiffany Lisa," Shirley recalls. "When I saw the movie I decided it had to be Tiffany. T.L.C.—those are the initials, you know. T.L.C., like tender loving care."
At the Speedo/Du Pont Swim Meet of Champions last week in their new hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., mother and daughter Cohen kept reminding all those present—roughly 500 spectators and 600 of the Western world's best swimmers—that a little T.L.C. can go a long way. With 25 meters left in the women's 400-freestyle finals late Friday afternoon, Tiffany Lisa Cohen, now nearly 18 years old and America's best distance freestyler, was in first place, trying to hold off a surge by veteran Nancy Hogshead of Concord, Calif. Shirley Cohen stood with a hand-held timer over Hogshead's lane. If the electronic timing system failed, she would have to show an official clocking for Hogshead—though that seemed of secondary concern as the race neared its conclusion. "Come on, Tiff!" she screamed. "Come on!"
"Let's just hope the electronic timing system doesn't fail," said Mission Viejo Nadadores club coach Mark Schubert.
Like most of the swimmers at the meet, Cohen, a senior at Mission Viejo High, was neither shaved nor rested nor ready to show much of a finishing kick, especially against a speedster like Hogshead, who would later crush all opposition in the 100 and 200 frees. In fact, having swum as many as 17,000 yards a day, Cohen was coming off some of her hardest training of the year. But in competition the 5'9", 137-pound Cohen is as tenacious as a bullterrier.
Two weeks ago, while nursing a badly sprained left ankle, she lost to teammate Tami Bruce in the 200-yard free at a California scholastic meet in East Los Angeles. Schubert, her coach for the last four years, was there. "I mean, she came out of the water steaming," he says. Cohen was so mad she dived into the pool an hour later and set a national high-school record in the 500-yard free (4:41.23).
On Friday, driven by the shouts and cheers of her mom and Schubert, Cohen again showed her competitive mettle, touching out Hogshead in the 400-meter free by a foot, 4:13.64 to 4:13.99—with no timing malfunctions. Both mother and daughter quickly regained their easy-going manner.
Shirley Cohen, who divorced Tiffany's father, Bob, in 1981, has neither the temperament nor the time to be an overbearing swim parent; brightly pleasant, she works full-time as a drugstore cashier to help support Tiffany and her brother, Brandon, a University of Arizona junior. Tiffany, who's been swimming since she was eight, is by nature low-key, unexcitable, stubborn only if she has to be. But unseen gears turn inside. "I remember one time this year she was having kind of a mediocre set," says Schubert. "We got down to the last swim, and I said, 'Gee, I wonder what Astrid Strauss [of East Germany, Cohen's top rival] is going for in a 200 freestyle right now'—and suddenly she was spectacular. Little comments like that have a big effect on Tiffany."
Cohen's victories at last week's meet—she also won Sunday's 800 free, in 8:37.00, defeating Julianne Brossman of Fairlawn, N.J. by five feet—continued her dominance of U.S. women's distance events that goes back nearly three years, to the 1981 U.S. Long-Course Championships in Brown Deer, Wis., where she upset Marybeth Linzmeier in the 400 free for her first national title. Cohen had arrived at Mission Viejo in 1980 as a tiny (5'4" and 97 pounds) and inexperienced 13-year-old, a raw talent with a thrashing stroke, a shy wunderkind who hid under her Walkman. Shirley had introduced Tiffany to the sport by bringing her along to the swimming lessons she gave to retarded children, and Tiffany had fast become a nationally ranked age-group backstroker. Some encouraging freestyle performances convinced Tiffany to get off her back, and her interest in free events was piqued by her dad, a salesman who lives in Los Angeles. Bob Cohen would make up charts of the year-by-year progress of top freestyle swimmers like Shirley Babashoff and Cynthia Woodhead for his daughter.
For nearly a decade now, swimming has been Tiffany's life. She even sleeps on water, having inherited her brother's king-sized waterbed when he left for college. Shirley does her part by preparing the salads and raw vegetables her daughter seems to live on (breakfast at Tiffany's is usually hot cereal) and by walking half a mile to work so that Tiffany can use the family Audi to drive one mile to her workouts. Says Tiffany with a smile, "I need to save all my energy for training."
Cohen has matured into a smooth, seasoned racer and a 14-time national champion who'll likely take home two Olympic gold medals this summer—in the 400 and 800 frees—and maybe more in 1988. Unfortunately, because of the Soviet-bloc boycott, Strauss, the 16-year-old who defeated Cohen in three of four races at the U.S. Swimming International in Austin, Texas in January, won't be in L.A. to challenge her. "It would've been one of the best matchups in the Games," says Schubert sadly. "I see a lot of the same strengths in Strauss and Tiffany. I think the 400 and 800 would have rewritten the record book."