Lessons From Legends, Mary T. Meagher

  36 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | December 26th, 2014 | Featured, International, Lifestyle, Masters

CHUCK WARNER:  What are you willing to do to reach your potential?

One of the most enduring world records ever set was by Mary T Meagher in 1981 when she swam the 200 meter butterfly in 2:05.96. Thirty-one years later, and despite many suit improvements, Mary’s time is still within striking distance of the 2:04.1 that won the 2008 Olympics. After all these years, she remains the third fastest American woman ever in the event.

Mary, with the guidance of her Coach Denny Pursley, trained butterfly similarly to how the rest of the team trained freestyle, backstroke or breastroke──they swam a lot of it!

Legend has it that during their winter training break in 1979 at the Keating Natatorium in Cincinnati, the team was given a 10,000, long course, for time. If they performed under a stated time by Coach Pursley they could miss the morning swim session that followed the next day. Mary and some of her teammates piped up and asked, “What about butterfly?” Coach Pursley offered that anyone that wanted to swim the 10,000 meters butterfly could, but to earn sleep the next morning they must complete the distance without a single break of stroke (using a single arm).

Mary T earned was successful in the challenge to swim the 10,000 meter butterfly.

What are you prepared to do to build endurance and see how fast you can swim? Why have only two American women been able to swim faster than Mary T in 31 years? “Madame Butterfly”, as she was once called, also swam a 57.9 in the 100-meter butterfly, so she had speed. She was still in high school and had yet to fully physically mature. In her program with Coach Pursley at Lakeside, and then Cincinnati, butterfly was treated as any other stroke including the times when it came to repeat sets and distances that were difficult. If your anatomy is capable it will still take a long commitment to building your body to achieve this type of butterfly endurance. But Mary T proved it was possible.

Legendary Mullings:

Bob Dylan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday.  There is only one “swimming person” that ever won the award, also a “Bob.” His name is Robert John Herman Kiphuth. The five time USA Olympic Coach (1928-1948) is one of the great Legends in swimming history.

You never know…Mary T Meagher made three Olympic Teams in 1980 (US boycott), 1984 and 1988. By 1988 her fabulous career was fading. Janel Jorgensen (age 16), from the Wilton Y Wahoos, finished third at Trials in the 100 fly in 1988. Janel went home disappointed, got a phone call that someone ahead of her was disqualified from the team and she was now on it. Mary T swam poorly in the 100-meter fly in Seoul and Janel took her spot on the 400 Medley Relay and won a silver medal… you never know what’s coming next…

Lessons from legendsChuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been rnners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is due out in mid-June. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go towww.areteswim.com and access “Books/Media.”

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36 Comments on "Lessons From Legends, Mary T. Meagher"


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Craig H
4 years 2 months ago

“By 1988 her fabulous career was fading.”
I would imagine. The body can only hold up to that kind of pounding (e.g. 10,000 meters of butterfly at a time) for so long. She was probably one of the few individuals who could withstand that kind of training and actually perform well. I like to think that we have learned a lot with regards to our training methodology. We now have a slew of young athletes who are well under 2:10 and will be nearly as fast or faster than Meagher; hopefully they will be blessed with long careers and not cursed with the overtraining that led to the burnout of so many swimmers in earlier eras. Not to take anything away from what Meagher accomplished. She was truly an exceptional athlete. The durability of her records are a testament to how amazing she was.
It’s exciting to me though that there are already four women this year who have swum times faster than what she went. I’m excited to see what Trials and the Olympics will bring.

mikeh
3 months 1 day ago

Well said – the body isn’t made to train with both high volume and high intensity forever. Among mega distance runners, too many come on the scene and then flame out, victims of long-term over training. Perhaps this happened to Meagher, hard to say for sure.

Mike Schmidt
4 years 2 months ago

I was a huge fan of Mary T.’s as a younger swimmer. In high school, I wrote an essay about her training leading up to the Seoul Olympics. My teacher encouraged me to write her a letter and ask about it (my first real “research”, I suppose!). I sent a letter off to USA Swimming, in the hopes that it would get forwarded on to her.

A very short time after that, I received not only a two page letter from her, but also a copy of an article about her career and training which had been published in a magazine. I was amazed that she took the time to do that, and I remember getting that letter in the mail to this day. It’s now safely packed away in my high school memories, and I will forever think of this lady as a generous, and friendly total class-act. My swimming days are long gone, but I will never forget Madame Butterfly. What an amazing person, all-around!

Angi
1 year 8 months ago

I trained with her briefly in 1988 before the trials. She did the entire practice fly. She led us all (National Qualifiers doing free) on pull sets.

NM Coach
1 year 8 months ago

What was NOT mentioned above or in the comment section…was the fact that she made the Olympic team AFTER having a collapsed lung that she missed a ton of training because of!

She was unbelievable! People can try and dismiss how Denny Pursley trained her. But she was so far ahead of the rest of the WORLD! 31 years later and still only 2 American women have EVER swum faster…who knows what she would’ve done in a tech suit!

“T” is the Gold standard for American women flyers!

Joel Lin
1 year 8 months ago

What Mary T did in the 100 and 200 fly at Brown Deer was plainly and simply the most instantly spectacular leaps in swimming events in history. Yes, more medals have been won by athletes at other more important meets but a single more spectacular moment in time has never been met or exceeded over the Incident at Brown Deer, and I do not gather I will live to see a day when it will.

Josh
1 year 8 months ago

Egerszegi’s 1991 European Championships in Athens has to come pretty close to that. She broke world records in the 100 and 200 back, taking the latter from a 2:08.6 to a 2:06.6. Granted, this was the year that swimmers were allowed to flip turn, but that record wouldn’t be touched until 2008 and the era of the LZR. Even her winning time of 2:07.83 in the twilight of her career at the Atlanta Olympics which got her a decisive four second victory would have won Olympic titles eight years on. It would have taken until 2012 to knock her off the podium. What could she have done with a tech suit?

Crazy also to think that Betsy Mitchell’s 2:08.6 world record from 1986 with bucket turns would have medaled at every Olympiad until 2008 and would still make finals now. That’s another swimmer who didn’t get her due because of East Germans. She would have won five golds at the 1986 Worlds if not for them.

liquidassets
1 year 8 months ago

Mary T. set her first world record at age 14, and her LCM times mostly peaked by age 16 with those world records in 1981. Is it possible that all that fly yardage in training took too much of a toll on her? It’s scary to think that she might have gone even faster.

Josh
1 year 8 months ago

Mary T. was actually getting to be quite the freestyler later in her career. If not for East Germans, she would have won six gold medals at the 1986 World Championships (and a bronze if you question whether Tamara Costache of Romania was clean like I do), beating Missy Franklin to the punch by 27 years. She would have won the 100/200 fly, the 200 free, 4th place in the 100 free (3rd if you eliminate Costache), and gold in the 4×100 medley, 4×100 freestyle, and 4×200 freestyle relays. Two years out from Seoul, and she was looking better than ever. The 2:08.4 she swam to win the 200 fly in Madrid in 86 would have won the 88 Olympic title by a full second, and would have also won the 1991 Worlds and the 1992 Olympics. Something definitely happened between Madrid and Seoul, because she was on pace to be a multi-event threat.

Aside from Costache in that 100 free, every World or Olympic loss she ever suffered was at the hands of a Chinese or East German athlete. She should have TEN World Championship golds in two appearances (they were only held every four years back then).

liquidassets
1 year 8 months ago

All great accomplishments for sure. I do remember her going 1:59 for the 200 free, back when breaking 2:00 was still a huge deal.

But a 2:08.4 for the 200 fly in 1986, at age 21, was still not “better than ever two years out from Seoul” it was 2.5 seconds slower than her WR from 5 years earlier, at age 16.

Josh
1 year 8 months ago

My point was that she was better than ever in that she became a much more prolific swimmer as she got older. She was Missy Franklin 27 years before Missy came along, but never got the recognition for being more than a flyer. I mean, she qualified for Worlds in the 100/200 free, 100/200 fly, and three relays. That’s nuts. I’d like to hear more about what happened to her between Madrid and Seoul.

Mike, she is my favorite swimmer ever, too. I found the sport late in high school, and the first book I read related to swimming was “Champions” by Daniel Chambliss, which told the story of the mythical Mission Viejo Nadadores led by Mark Schubert. (Imagine when I started training and realized our practices were not 10,000 yards each lke the ones he ran!) She has a prominent place in that book, and I remember being in awe of her and the things she did in practice and in her career and sending her a letter as well. She replied with a handwritten full-page letter on the stationary of her swim camps in Louisville, and I still have it framed in a box with old swimming trophies and medals. She is all class.

Swim Faster
1 year 8 months ago

I agree with Liquid Assets. Hindsight is 20/20, but I do wonder if she might have lowered her butterfly times had she been able to vary her training a bit. This article inspired me to go watch one of her swims on youtube. What a beautiful, graceful swimmer. And what a graceful and gracious person.

mikeh
3 months 1 day ago

Certainly possible all that intensity, and all that mileage, took a toll on her.

Ohioswimmer
1 year 8 months ago

What a huge honor it was to train in the same pool with Mary T and Pursley that year. It was such a magical time, and ultimately heartbreaking with the 1980 boycott and so many Marlins on the team. The training was brutal back then, but it made a lot of Marlins that year Olympians. It was really a privledge just to see her swim. Also around helping Pursley coach was Frank Busch getting his career started. Who knows if the training was too hard or whether it drove her to greatness? Does it matter? She was so far ahead of her time. Careers tended to end much earlier back then. Girls were generally believed to have peaked before age 20, and your career ended with college. There just wasn’t any money in it.

pol
1 year 8 months ago

The best female American butterflyer (if there’s such a word) in the history of Swimming. I don’t know why America hasn’t produced any prodigy as good as Mary T. Meagher.

Joel Lin
1 year 8 months ago

Simple Pol, she was one of a kind and you’ll never see another prodigy like Mary T again.

easyspeed
1 year 8 months ago

It’s a sad state of affairs when you get people writing, “Gosh, if only she hadn’t done so much volume, she would be so much better.” (Craig H)

How about BECAUSE of her hard training, she was able to put up times that would last 31 years. And maybe we need to get back to that!

Man, with this current lazy training trend, won’t be surprised if pretty soon we have teams that train without getting in the pool at all.

John
1 year 8 months ago

Well said. With the worrying news that people are now demanding “video-gaming” in the Olympics, you have to wonder how much more brilliance can be dumbed down. The US girls could still be swimming 2:08 to get into the Olympic team in 2016 and some people here would be wondering if they could “hold off the rest of the world”. Europe and Asia are slightly better for 2:05 / 2:06 but after a third of a century why aren’t people faster in their droves? Let’s face it, give Mary T. a modern suit and underwaters and she’d beat a lot of the men.

N=1
1 year 8 months ago

Faith based training. There is nothing wrong with volume because it is required for long events. It’s required for short events as well (practice makes perfect). But you want that volume to be focused on what you need to do to succeed.

Just because it works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone (cough cough USRPT). Some people need a bit more swimming, some need less. Some need more weights, some need more recovery. Every individual has a different physiology and anatomy, my tendons and ligaments couldn’t handle the high volume distance training I went through in college and coaches need to understand that.

acoach
1 year 8 months ago

If she just did usrpt i’m sure sure she would be solid 2.15 , but not burn out.lol.

1 year 8 months ago

Quite simply, one of the greatest ever. Her performances and training were awesome. What a champion!

ohioswimmer
1 year 8 months ago

The thing to lament here is not her training regimen, but the fact she missed out on her prime Olympics in 1980. Some women really do peak at young ages, and she was in prime form (due to her incredibly hard work) in 80 and 81. True dominant Olympic glory should have been hers that year and wasn’t. The fact that she continued on to make two more Olympic teams is amazing.

gobears
1 year 8 months ago

Mary T. was a class act as a swimmer and as a person. I knew her at Cal and was always bummed that she didn’t get to take advantage of what the 1980 Olympics would have brought her. She would certainly have been a darling of the media and would have had a lot more fame.

Unfortunately back then women were just starting to swim seriously in college and virtually no one swam after college. I remember in the mid eighties when Jeannie Childs was on the cover of Swimming World because (oh my god!) she broke an American record at 21 (a really old lady in the swimming world). No one thought women could improve past high school. Why? Society had barely started promoting sports for girls in high school much less college and beyond.

What??
1 year 8 months ago

It is called progression. You people that want to keep training like she did because it worked back in the day are dilusional. Let’s throw away our cell phones and computers and go back to type writers and snaik mail. Because as you said it worked so maybe we should still be doing it right?

Training has progressed in all sports. Concussions are now recognized as a major issue in football. But heh it worked for the players back then so let’s ignore concussions now right!?

If people can and are training smarter then who cares who trains “harder?”. We did 10k fly today and it ruined our temp and timing but hey we did it. What did you do? We did 10×75 held goal times, stroke count and technique. I’ll take the 10×75 any day. This is why USRPT works, you prepare how you compete. You don’t compete a 200 fly LC with the tempo, stroke count and technique you do for a 10k for time.

Get out of the stone age.

Coach
1 year 8 months ago

Why can’t people just accept that there is nothing wrong with the way Mary T trained. In fact my understanding was that her swimming began to decline when “she didn’t want to do the fly training the way she used to do it.”.

The comment re: the 10×75 USRPT doesn’t even make sense…. that wouldn’t even be a good fly set per Brent Rushall. Did you do the reading??? Apparently not. But nevertheless, USRPT did NOT work for Michael Andrews…. I saw his 200 fly struggle at juniors this summer. He could be so much better with a little traditional work.

Now, if you want to talk about looking to the future and not looking to the past, how about this: Take the best of everything! Train like Mary T for a period of time (4-8 weeks)…ie. volume, then train the way Randy Reese would train a kid for a period of time (Power for several weeks), then train the way Dave Salo would train a kid for a period of weeks (Speed) or usrpt. I guarantee you’ll get adaptation in several different areas. And how many coaches / teams train like that…..NO ONE…. because everyone is locked into “1 camp”. Talk about trying something new. That’s new and I bet you’d get great results.

acoach
1 year 8 months ago

I agree with you 100%, non of this kids or do less people know about periodization ,lets just sprint until we can not sprint anymore (I truly believe its coming for Michael just watch his jr. nats)
What happened to real work?

SW SwimMom
1 year 8 months ago

If you build it, we will come!

easyspeed
1 year 8 months ago

No, we are not dilusional (sic). I’d explain further but based on your tangential ramblings, I doubt you would understand. Suffice to say, until one of your slacker heroes puts up a time that holds for 31 years, only then will you be able to say “newer is better.”

MJ Pursley
1 year 8 months ago

Just to set the record straight — Legend got it wrong — it was a 3000 fly breathing one up one down and no breaking stroke — about 12 girls did it voluntarily and we got out of an afternoon workout. (I was there and one of the 12 girls).
Mary T and many other great swimmers did train hard for Denny — most of whom never swam as fast after they went to more “balanced ” programs.
You people really shouldn’t comment on things you know nothing about. Denny was a tough coach but he also knew how to cycle energy systems so that you could manage the load and he had an uncanny way of knowing just when you needed a recovery workout.
Denny wrote a book called “Climb to the top” — read it and then tell me he has no idea how the train his swimmers — If more coaches trained there swimmers like he does it may not take another 30 years to have 3 girls swim as fast as Mary T did.

gobears
1 year 8 months ago

Still very cool (even more so that there were 12 of you willing to do this)! My favorite Mary T. swim was watching her while she was training for Mission Viejo and swimming at a meet at Belmont Plaza. It was long course and the middle of the day when almost no one was around – the 1500 heats. She stepped up to the block in a heat full of men and my coach and I sat up to see what she was going to do. She started swimming fly and we thought maybe she was doing a time trial 200. Nope. She was swimming a 1500 fly and her counter was at the other end of the pool holding up the number 11 most of the time (T’s 100 splits). If my memory serves, she went under 18 minutes and won a bet with Mark Schubert. It was an amazing thing to watch.

easyspeed
1 year 8 months ago

Does Mary do motivational speaking? Maybe we can get her to convince the anti volume crowd to get their rears in gear and actually do some hard training.

To be clear, I don’t think everyone in USA swimming is going in that direction. The ones at the top are still doing the necessary endurance work. But based on the comments of Craig H and Liquid Assets and “What”, I do believe the more for less attitude is a cancer creeping into our sport. Hence the need for me to wave the lantern in warning.

Mary T = Legend!!

Swim Faster
1 year 8 months ago

I saw her speak a few years post-grad. In a small group afterwards she talked about how difficult it was to continue training when she didn’t drop her times. I endured the same kind of training when I was young, and swam faster as a 30-year-old masters swimmer than I did as a college senior.

Would we be having this conversation about training if she had continued to drop her butterfly times after the age of 16? I think probably not.

mikeh
1 year 8 months ago

People forget how close Mary T came to her world record in the 200 fly. As I recall she won in 1984 with a 2:06.9, then I want to say she won at 1986 world champ trials with a 2:06.3, an outstanding swim.

Josh
1 year 8 months ago

Yup. 2:06.39 at the 86 World Trials. The US team was hit hard with a bout of severe flu in Madrid, so who knows what she could have gone under better circumstances.

Asher Green
1 year 8 months ago

Denny was and still is a great coach and did a fantastic job with Mary T. – who, to the best of my knowledge, was never referred to as “Madame Butterfly” within the swimming world. Let’s also recognize the late Bill Peak, as he was her coach in 1981 when she achieved those long-lasting world records.

Josh
1 year 8 months ago

The late 70s and the 80s really were a golden era for US women swimmers. Even with the presence of East Germany, there was Tracy Caulkins, Sippy Woodhead, who held the American record in the 200m free from 1978 until Nicole Haislett broke it in winning the 1992 Olympic title, Janet Evans, and Mary T, all of which had dominant streaks and lasting records the likes of which we may never again see in swimming. These girls were the byproduct of the confluence of natural athletic talent and serious hard work. The fact that their times would still be internationally-competitive today is a testament to that.

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly.As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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