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

“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… Read more »


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

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… Read more »


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

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!

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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