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 [email protected]

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

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Steve Nolan
7 years ago

The John Leonard comparison is a stretch; Babashoff at least had the whole “they sounded like dudes!” thing – a hell of a lot more “proof” than Leonard had.

7 years ago

Pullezeee….Do not equate John Leonard with Shirley Babashoff… Babashoff is a winner, not a loser.

7 years ago

What was John Leonard’s “proof”? That Ye went really fast? Did Leonard ever accused Phelps of doping because his swims were so far ahead of everyone else? No! His accusations was all based on her country’s past history and unlike Babashoff’s case, she does not even look like she has doped.

Reply to  swimmer
7 years ago

while you can sometimes see physical traits that might raise red flags concerning PED usage, someone not looking like a doper is not evidence that they aren’t.

tell me how you would spot an EPO user or blood doper based on physical characteristics?

Reply to  boourns
7 years ago

Excellent point Boourns. The fact of the matter is the cheaters/dopers are ahead of the testing system. So Shirley Babashoff stuck her neck out to what seemed logical. John Leonard has done the same, and certainly by some, including readers here, had his head figuratively handed to him.

As someone replied here, perhaps time will tell about his comment about the Chinese girl. However, John is one of the very few people in the sport of swimming willing to speak up. His research on doping is as vast as any swimming professional in the world. He has been through the back roads of China talking with coaches and investigating claims of PEDs. He keeps current on changes in genetic… Read more »

Reply to  Chuck
7 years ago

If cheaters and dopers are ahead of the testing system (which I agree with), why limit to chinese swimmers.

Or is it not possible to be an american swimmer and doper (and ahead of the testing system)?

Reply to  swimmer
7 years ago

If Shiwen is doped, she must have been doped since she was diaper, because at barely age of 14 yo, she swam 2:09.37 (200 IM) and 4:33.79 (400 IM).

why only made the outcry in London, right after she beat Beisel?

I really really hope Swim Swam doesn’t equate Leonard’s London accusation with Shirley Babashoff.

Lane Four
Reply to  aswimfan
7 years ago

I definitely see your point, but if you use that logic, then Kornelia Ender was probably clean in 1972 when as a 13-year-old she went home from the Munich Olympics with three silver medals! One year later as a 14-year-old she was destroying world records and winning world championship gold medals which of course led up to 1976 and history in the making.