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At the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in suburban Milwaukee last Wednesday, Mary T. Meagher's coach, Bill Peak, was explaining why Mary T. doesn't swim well in morning preliminaries. "It's her metabolism," he said. "If you take her pulse while she's sleeping, you'll find that she's virtually dead. That can make it tough to get going."
But when the U.S. long course championships began at Schroeder the next morning—indoors for only the third time in 80 years—the greatest woman butterflyer in history looked full of life. Meagher, 16, quickly opened up a lead of several body lengths in her heat of the 200-meter fly, then eased off slightly, mindful of reserving strength for the evening final. Nevertheless, she still won by nearly 3� seconds, finishing in 2:09.55, the eighth-fastest time ever.
Considering that six of the seven best times also are Mary T.'s, it was hardly surprising that she would soon provide the four-day meet with more than just a bracing morning swim. However, several of the meet's other developments were less foreseeable. Although the U.S. is desperate for top-of-the-line male freestylers, for example, not one candidate really distinguished himself; instead, the four freestyle swimmers who stood out were two teen-age women and two men, a dazzling but inconsistent Samoan sprinter and a previously retired 22-year-old from Jesup, Ga., who made a comeback with the aid of surgical tubing, plastic cups, pulleys, wires and milk crates full of weights.
Jesse Vassallo, world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, abruptly ended two years of frustration, in which he was unable to improve his times, by winning two events and coming within .38 of his IM record. And despite a fast pool and talk that more world records would be broken than at any other U.S. meet since the 1972 Olympic Trials (where 12 marks fell), only two world records were set.
Tracy Caulkins, who had hoped to surpass as many as four world marks herself, got zilch, though she did win four events (both breaststrokes and both IMs) to raise her career total of national titles to 35, only one short of Johnny Weissmuller's record. "The atmosphere just isn't what I thought it would be," she said, bewildered and disappointed by her showing.
Caulkins had already come within .05 of her own American record in winning the 200 breaststroke on Thursday night, when Mary T. returned to the starting platform for her final. Meagher's strategy in going after her 200 fly world record of 2:06.37 was to swim four 50-meter splits that were approximately equal; in setting the record back in July 1980, she had swum a blazing first 50 and then tailed off.
And indeed, this time she swam the first 50 in 29.5—.8 off her world-record pace, but just what she and Peak had wanted. By 75 meters she had a two-body-length lead and was well into her graceful, high-arching churn: two strokes, then a breath. ("That perfect rhythm, the timing was something she had naturally when she was 10," says Peak. "No coach can take credit for it.") Successive splits near 32 seconds sent Meagher into the final 50 .69 behind her record pace, but not to worry; she has built her endurance with non-stop butterfly workouts of as long as 1,600 meters, an incredible distance over which to sustain swimming's most exhausting stroke. That, and a roaring, whistling crowd that was waving hands, towels and programs over their heads, carried her down the final length. As she hit the touch-pad, the scoreboard flashed 2:05.96. She had lowered the world record by nearly half a second.
After waving to her parents, who were sitting in a balcony above the pool, Meagher hopped out of the water and went directly to Peak. It seems she had been a bit concerned about the problems created by bright TV lights shining on her wet bathing suit. "Could you see through?" she asked.
"Of course. Everybody could," said Peak. But he was unable to maintain a sober face, and Mary T. smacked him on the arm. "You!" she cried.
Swimming is fun again for Meagher, something it wasn't just a year ago, when she "was for sure going to quit" in frustration over the Olympic boycott. It helps now that Peak has her on a less rigid training program that allows her to play field hockey at school and requires only one-a-day workouts for part of the year. But what persuaded her not to quit was a trip to China with the national team last August. She spent a lot of time with 17-year-old Sippy Woodhead, the world-record holder in the 200 free and someone with whom Meagher could identify. "Sippy kept talking about how she was going to stick with it until the Olympics," says Meagher. "I guess it rubbed off." Mary T. apparently picked up some of Woodhead's unabashedness, too. In Canton, the team put together a mock Gong Show, in which Caulkins, Woodhead and two other swimmers imitated the punk band the B-52's and sang that classic, Rock Lobster. Mary T., two swim paddles in each hand for pincers, portrayed a dancing lobster. "At least we didn't get gonged," she says.