Lessons From Legends: Shirley Babashoff, Is your best good enough?

After each season, and often after each race, a swimmer faces the question: Is my best effort good enough? This is especially true when the result of one’s effort is disappointing. At times like this a performance can refine you or define you. If you have a next season, be sure it helps to refine you. If you don’t have another season, that disappointment can still refine you, your perspective on your competitive swimming career, and who you are as a person. The alternative choice of allowing a failure or disappointment to define you is a choice you need not make.

In all of swimming history one of the most prolific examples of this difficult crossroads is the swimming career of Shirley Babashoff.

At just 15-years old, Shirley set her first world record in the 200-meter freestyle (2:05.21) at the 1972 USA Olympic Trials in Chicago. At the Munich Games she improved her best time but finished second to Australia’s great Shane Gould in the 200 and also in the 100 freestyle.

Over the next four years Shirley Babashoff worked harder than she ever had before. A change in programs to Mark Schubert’s new tenure at the Mission Viejo Nadadores (MVN) thrust her, Coach Schubert and MVN into a simultaneous explosion to the top of the swimming world. Schubert’s highly endurance oriented program of the middle 1970s helped Shirley build a new level of conditioning and she dropped the 200 world record two more times down to 2:02.94. She also broke the 400 freestyle world record twice and by the 1976 Olympic Trials set a new global standard of 8:39.63 in the 800 freestyle.

Shirley Babashoff was on fire. She was set up for a fabulous Olympics in Montreal. Shirley rose to the occasion in Montreal when she swam lifetime bests in the 200 (2:01.22), 400 (4:10.46) and 800 (8:37.59), all under the standing world records.

But she was beaten in every race, receiving silver medals in each event. Was Shirley’s best good enough?

If you don’t know the details of what Shirley faced in Montreal, it might be easy to answer, “Yes.” After all, she swam faster than at any time in her life, when it counted most, at the Olympic Games.

However, a dark shadow fell across the performance of athletes from the East German (known as the DDR at that time) women’s team that defeated Shirley in each race. Stories were uttered from the women’s locker room in Montreal that American girls overheard unusually deep voices and thought men had entered the dressing area. It turned out it was the voices of their DDR competitors. Questions were whispered by a timid few of whether the DDR squad was somehow using drugs to enhance their performance and it was affecting their voice, as well as their physical attributes:

“To be frank, I don’t think we should look like men.”…

“That’s not the way God created us – to be like that (looking like DDR Swimmers)”…

Much of the media took any suggestion of drug use by the DDR women, made by Shirley, or anyone else, as poor sportsmanship. Some nicknamed the nineteen-year old “Surly Shirley.”

Thirty-one years later, in 2007 the DDR admitted systematically doping thousands of athletes between 1973 and 1989, without their knowledge, to promote their country through sports success.

When the admission from Germany was finally made Shirley Babashoff’s, coach Mark Schubert told Swimming World Magazine, “She was the only one that had the guts to speak out back then. If anybody had the right to speak out, it was her because she was the one that was cheated out of Olympic gold medals.”

If you have a disappointing outcome even after giving your best effort it might help you to remember the plight of Shirley Babashoff. Hopefully there will still be time to refine your swimming based upon that disappointment to prepare for the next swim or the next season.

Fortunately for Shirley Babashoff, after all her individual second place races, there was one more relay to swim in Montreal. She and her American teammates of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli and Jill Sterkel raced to one of the greatest upsets in swimming history in the 400 freestyle relay winning the gold medal over the DDR and blasting the world record in the process. Shirley Babashoff began her anchor leg with just a slight lead. She fought her way through 100-meters, refusing to relinquish what her teammates had handed her. Her tenacity was finally rewarded with a gold medal. The girls were wild with joy. They deserved to be.

As one pictures Shirley Babashoff putting her feet up on her couch in her home in Fountain Valley, California today, we might wonder: How have the controversial performance results of her giving her best in Montreal refined her or defined her?

After the DDR system was exposed in 2007 for its cheating she said, “Everyone should be compensated somewhat or just acknowledged. Even our own Olympic Committee should step up and have an event where they can invite those who are still alive and recognize them, perhaps with a commemorative medal… or at least say, ‘We know that this has been hard for you.’ They should at least acknowledge the women.”

Shirley Babashoff was a woman of courage to speak up in 1976, just as she did in 2007. Her honesty has never needed refining, but the recognition for her and the other women that were systematically robbed of their rightful place in Olympic history deserves correction, even if it is sadly late and pales in fulfillment to their stolen moments of satisfaction knowing their best was the best in the world when they touched the wall at the end of a swimming race.

Shirley Babashoff defined honesty, athletic greatness and courage in 1976, again in 2007 and presumably today. Even 37 years later it’s not too late to refine our acknowledgement of her achievements and that of her contemporaries. If we, as a swimming community, wish to define ourselves as the guardians of fairness in sport and give our best effort, we will.

Legendary Mullings:

…John Leonard was ripped in the press after making a comment in London about his suspicion that a Chinese swimmer had used an illegal performance enhancing drug or manipulation to win a gold medal. Was John filling the same role as Shirley Babashoff? He was treated like it.

…for many coaches and swimmers today, even a 1996 cheating scandal by Michelle Smith at the Atlanta Olympics is out of sight and out of mind. There are only a few people who work daily to keep a level playing field in swimming races so that each competitor has an equal chance under the doping rules to feel the exhilaration of turning off the clock first and immediately being recognized as a champion. Somehow, that recognition years later, can’t feel nearly as good.

Chuck WarnerFor more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

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7 years ago

Not a swimmer. Never been a swimmer. But understand the relentless and grueling training that these athletes endure. The feeling of being cheated like this is unimaginable. Hopefully the disappointment is tempered by the knowledge of the shame of the athletes who stole the medals. I can’t believe that Michele Smith is a lawyer. Isn’t there a character committee on ethical standards, even for Irish lawyers? They made her into a national hero. What a joke she is. Shirley Babashoff has my vote for a Kennedy Profile in Courage.

10 years ago

They should be giving Shirley her medals. They gave the 2012 olympians in shot-put their medals when they had been cheated out of them by drugs why does it make any difference to the IOC when it happened

Lane Four
Reply to  Swimswimswim
10 years ago

I agree completely.

10 years ago

Shirley was our US Postal mail carrier in Huntington Beach for a while. Shirley was not afraid to speak out on the DDR issue, and really FINA should have stripped medals from the East Germans when the overwhelming doping evidence finally came out. Either FINA had no backbone, was lazy, ignorant, or defacto condoned the practice.

Lane Four
Reply to  PAC12BACKER
10 years ago

Shirley rocked! She held the American records at the same time from the 100 to the 800 with the 800 being the world record until Petra Thumer took it away in Montreal with Shirley also going under her old record. She was one incredible athlete and in this day and age would be a household name.

10 years ago

Really! Life goes on, stop living in the past!!

Lane Four
Reply to  kathy
10 years ago

Cynthia isn’t living in the past, Kathy. She was simply letting the younger folks know exactly what we were up against way back when.

cynthia curran
10 years ago

It sure is something to see 55s with those awful starts and turns. The second swimmer for the US doing it with no goggles is even more impressive. A few comments/observations: oh are the starts so much better now! second, donna devarona was correct in making the observations on title ix and the differences. third, I cracked up at “old” and 19. and finally, have didn’t jill sterkel also win gold on the 4×100 with dara torres in LA? and then medal in ’88? or have I lost my mind on that one? We all swam in meets without googles because they might pop off from a dive. It was the old grab start and before that was the start… Read more »

10 years ago

It sure is something to see 55s with those awful starts and turns. The second swimmer for the US doing it with no goggles is even more impressive.

10 years ago

Agree that something has to be done for the athletes who were denied medals after the systemic doping was found to be true. I’m somewhat puzzled that it hasn’t been done: the IOC has stripped medals well after the games (the 2000 women’s team medal in gymnastics).

A few comments/observations: oh are the starts so much better now! second, donna devarona was correct in making the observations on title ix and the differences. third, I cracked up at “old” and 19. and finally, have didn’t jill sterkel also win gold on the 4×100 with dara torres in LA? and then medal in ’88? or have I lost my mind on that one?

Reply to  zebrafeet
10 years ago

No that’s right about Sterkel. After destroying the doped E. German counterpart on her leg of this 4×100, she came back and medalled in ’84 and ’88, including an individual bronze in the 50 in ’88.

cynthia curran
10 years ago

Babashoff is a winner, Agree. Shirley was good from 100 meter free to 800 meter freestyle, how many people can do that today. Shirley’s brother Jack also won a silver medal in the 100 meter freestyle in 1976, they didn’t have the 4 X 100 Freestyle relay for men’s at that Olympics. Babashoff and the rest of the girls beating the East Germans, Yeah.