SI Vault
Craig Neff
August 24, 1981
While Mary T. Meagher, who set two world records in the butterfly, and other ladies excelled at the U.S. long course championships, there was a serious drought in the male freestyle events
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August 24, 1981

Some Fast Women, But Few Free Men

While Mary T. Meagher, who set two world records in the butterfly, and other ladies excelled at the U.S. long course championships, there was a serious drought in the male freestyle events

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To see Mary T. today is to note a sharp contrast with the 14-year-old from Louisville who shocked the swimming world in 1979 by breaking the world 200 butterfly record three times in her first year of senior-level competition. She has grown two inches to 5'7", added 10 pounds to 128 pounds, and discarded her braces and the stuffed animals she used to bring to meets. No longer does she answer every question with just yes or no; she even talks of beginning college one year ahead of schedule, in 1982, and maybe studying communications.

She also now dominates her event more completely than any other woman swimmer in the world. Mary T. has 10 of the 11 fastest 200 fly times and four of the top five for the 100 fly. Her butterfly record since 1976 shows only one defeat: to Jill Sterkel in a 100-yard short course race in April. In Milwaukee, on Sunday evening, she and Sterkel would meet again in the 100 fly finals.

Meanwhile, the most pressing question of the meet was where have all the male freestyle swimmers gone? "We're in trouble that we've never been in before," said Brian Goodell, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 and 1,500 free, who was at the meet as a spectator. "As long as I've been around, we've owned the free." That changed last year because of retirements. Gone are Goodell, Mike Bruner, Rowdy Gaines and others—among them the American record holders in every Olympic freestyle event. "A lot of people just realized that they couldn't hang on until 1984," said Goodell.

Unfortunately, the men's freestyle competition at the long course meet did little to clarify who the new stars will be. After two days of inconclusive results, Olympic backstroke champion John Naber said, "No one winning these races would necessarily win the same race a month from now."

Two troubling freestyle champions were Robin Leamy and David Larson, who won the 50 and the 200, respectively. Leamy, a UCLA senior from Apia, Western Samoa, lowered Joe Bottom's American 50-meter record from 22.71 seconds to 22.54 in Saturday's preliminaries. But Leamy has a history of wasting good performances in the heats, as at the 1981 NCAAs, where he broke Bottom's 50-yard record in the preliminaries and then lost in the finals. "I feel more pressure in the prelims," Leamy says. "I see all those people and keep thinking 'I have to beat them all.' " In any case, his favorite event is too short for either the Olympics or world-record recognition. "A 50 can involve very much luck," Leamy concedes.

Larson had to be the most unlikely winner of the entire meet, and the one with the dimmest competitive future. He stopped swimming entirely between April and June, and since June he has been in the water only an hour a day. His coach at the University of Florida, Randy Reese, coaxed him back into the sport by suggesting that he do all his workouts using "bands, belts and baskets"—various homemade training devices dreamed up by Reese. "Bands" are long sections of thick surgical tubing attached to a swimmer and a pool wall, while "belts" have plastic cups on them that increase a swimmer's drag and "baskets" are plastic milk crates filled with barbell weights and hooked by rope and pulley onto the swimmer. In each case, the man in the water has a difficult time of it, so an entire workout can be completed in 30 minutes.

Larson swam so powerfully when he wasn't strapped into anything in Friday's 200 free that he not only won the event but did it by surging in the final 20 meters. His winning time of 1:50.86 was a personal best by .93 seconds. Alas, shortly after that victory he said he would once again retire from the sport, at the end of the summer, leaving the U.S. with yet another, national freestyle champion to replace. In the end, six different swimmers had won the six men's freestyle events, and only Leamy had established any sort of record.

The women weren't particularly looking for new freestyle distance swimmers, but found two talented ones anyway. Marybeth Linzmeier, a tall, lean 18-year-old with a record of consistent top-five finishes in national meets, won her first long course title (800 free) and then her second (200 free) and her third (1,500 free). She nearly won one more, the 400 free. Quiet and self-effacing, Linzmeier suggested that a major factor in her victories had been homesickness; after three years of training with the Mission Viejo team she had returned home to Visalia, Calif. last November for a three-month break from the sport. "I wanted to see my own sheets and pillow for longer than a weekend," she said. "And I needed to be away from swimming."

Perhaps more talented than Linzmeier, however, is her 108-pound teammate at Mission Viejo, Tiffany Cohen. Cohen, barely 15 yet swimming in her fourth nationals, placed in the top eight behind Linzmeier in the 800 and 200, then shocked everyone when she won Saturday's 400 free by overtaking Marybeth in the final 50 meters. "I don't know [scrunching up nose], it was, like, exciting or something, passing her," said Tiffany with a certain cockiness after the race. Her time of 4:09.77 made her the third-fastest American ever in the event.

Cohen's method of dealing with the boredom of 15,000 to 20,000 meters of training each day is to sing to herself, usually rock music. As she—by her description—struggled through Thursday's 800, she tried to push herself by singing a Foreigner song called Urgent. "I really like R.E.O. Speedwagon," she says. Her mother presumably has different tastes; she named her daughter after, in Tiffany's words, "some restaurant she always wanted to eat in. I think there's a jewelry store called that, too."

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