Lessons from Legends: Debbie Meyer, Chasing Boys


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Coach C. Vivian Stringer has had her women’s teams practice against the boys all the way back to her days at Cheyney State College in 1981. The only coach to have ever taken three different universities to the Final Four in NCAA basketball says, “We just can’t get the level of intensity and competition unless we compete each day against the boys.”

There are plenty of intense and competitive female athletes in the sport of swimming, but the neutral gender competition can help everyone.

At the Arden Hills Swim Club in the 1960s, Coach Sherm Chavoor conducted an afternoon practice of repeat swims that were done only with the use of his stopwatch—without a pace clock. The faster you went, the more rest you often received before the next swim. After the first swimmer reached the wall upon the completion of a long swim, such as a mile, Coach Chavoor would provide a small period of rest and then start the group on the next one. In the early 1960s, a little girl named Debbie Meyer chased the boys through Sherm’s program.

Chasing big brothers, or sisters, chasing mom or dad, chasing someone on a relay all seem to bring out the best in us, particularly if we notice we’re catching up. It tends to turn off our pain sensors and lock the mind onto competing, and perhaps winning. After Debbie’s move from New Jersey as a little girl swimming three times per week at Arden Hills, she noticed she was catching up.

The boys were fast at the Sacramento club in those days. As a matter of fact, they were some of the fastest in the world. There was Mike Burton, Mark Spitz, eventual American record holder John Ferris, and many others. And the Arden Hills training group was churning up yardage like few other programs in the world. The morning session consisted of about 5000 meters, and that got Debbie got started for the day. But the afternoons were close to 10,000 yards, a staggering volume at the time.

Arden Hills trained outdoors the year round, and goggles had yet to be developed for competitive swimming. So Debbie chased the boys through blurred vision.

In 1956, Australia’s great Murray Rose won the Olympic gold medals with times of 4:27.0 in the 400 and 17:59. 5 in the 1500. The same year, George Breen set the world record in the men’s 800 freestyle with a time of 9:15.7. By 1966, Debbie’s teammate Mike Burton had become the world record-holder in the men’s 1500 (16:41.6).

The following year of 1967, the 14, turning 15-year-old Debbie Meyer, ripped up the record books, stuffed them in a shredder and sent them to the trash. She broke seven world records. The sparkling little blonde-haired teen swam times of 4:29.0 (400), 9:22.9 (800), and in the 1500, beat Murray Rose’s time clocking in at 17:50.2.

And Debbie kept chasing the boys.

Between 1966 and 1972, Burton broke the 1500 world record five times – more than any male swimmer in history – lowering the standard from 16:58.6 to 15:52.5. In an even shorter span (1967-70), Debbie Meyer broke 20 world records, often chasing Mike in the training process. She improved the 1500 from 18:12.9 to 17:19.9, the 400 from 4:36.4 to 4:24.3 and the 800 from 9:35.8 in 1967 and 9:10.4 just a year later. All three of those times thrashed the men’s best times in the world just 12 years earlier.

The human mind can accept training pain and continue working through it, or allow it to slow them. By concentrating on racing teammates in practice, it’s often easier to subdue those sensations and train faster than you ever have before. Look around your practice and find different swimmers in different strokes, and sets. Race them like Debbie Meyer once raced her teammates all the way to three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics. The third she hung around her coach, Sherm Chavoor’s neck, and said, “This one is for you.”

Consider these suggestions:

  • Make competition fun and rewarding within your team, especially in practice.
  • Sing songs of different speeds and tempos as you change the gears of your ‘racecar.’
  • What if there is no one to chase? Make believe you are catching and passing rivals from another team when you lap a teammate.
  • Thank them later. Help teammates understand that they are valuable in all sorts of ways to your success and to the performance of the team.

And Then They Won Gold (Small)Today you might see Debbie Meyer at her Swim School in Sacramento, California, or if you’re chasing her in your car, notice her license plate: 3GOLD68.


For 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), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.