Lessons From Legends, Mary T. Meagher

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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Craig H
9 years 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… Read more »

mikeh
Reply to  Craig H
5 years 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
9 years 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… Read more »

Angi
Reply to  Mike Schmidt
6 years 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
6 years 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
6 years 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
Reply to  Joel Lin
6 years 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… Read more »

liquidassets
6 years 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
Reply to  liquidassets
6 years 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… Read more »

liquidassets
Reply to  Josh
6 years 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
Reply to  liquidassets
6 years 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… Read more »

Swim Faster
Reply to  liquidassets
6 years 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
Reply to  liquidassets
5 years ago

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

Ohioswimmer
6 years 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… Read more »

pol
6 years 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
Reply to  pol
6 years ago

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

easyspeed
6 years 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
Reply to  easyspeed
6 years 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
Reply to  easyspeed
6 years 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
Reply to  easyspeed
6 years ago

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

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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