Lessons from Legends: Sippy Woodhead and Patience


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

In 2008, Missy Franklin competed at the USA Olympic Trials as a 12-year old, just as another 12- year old girl named Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead did in 1976. More than 30 years later, you can still find Sippy’s name in the USA Swimming record book. She owns the three oldest girls national age group records (NAGS) in the USA, but she didn’t set any of them that summer. She had to be patient.

Patience is one of the most important qualities in a successful swimmer. Unlike the “ball sports,” success feedback tends to come after training at least several weeks, more often after many months and the greatest rewards are realized after training many for years.

Sippy grew up in Riverside, Calif., during a distance craze that dominated the swimming world. The creation of goggles helped swimmers stay in the pool longer, and coaches wanted to explore the benefits of endurance. Many believed that ‘more was better’—a lot more.

In 1977, her coach at the Riverside Aquatics Association (RAA), Chuck Riggs, tested the limits of volume with Sippy and her teammates. The top training group at RAA regularly trained more than 20,000 yards or meters per day and more than 100,000 per week. Over the winter break they logged 25,000 some days. They even tried 30,000 in a day—but didn’t quite make it.

Sippy set the oldest USA NAG that year with a 4:49.51 in the 500-yard freestyle for 11-12 year old girls. But there were better things to come, if she could be patient.

The following year of 1978, Coach Riggs decided to add quality and decrease quantity to the program. Sippy averaged only 13,000 meters/yards per day, but swam very fast in practice. A part of one training session was 5 x 200s (yards) on 4 minutes and her times were 1:51, 1:50, 1:49.5 and 1:49.1 . On March 8, 1978 at morning practice she swam a ‘broken 1650’ that included a 1000-yard swim in 9:44, 200 easy, 5 x 100s on 1:00 in times of 58, 57.2, 56.6, 55.4, 54.5 and 3 x 50s on 30 swimming 26.0, 25.8 and 26.6.

Sippy’s long, difficult training year of 1977 was paying off. Her training was on fire. But there were five more months before a big payoff. Five months to most 13-year olds is nearly a lifetime. But to a good swimmer it’s like climbing a mountain knowing that at the summit there will be a majestic view, and an enormous sense of satisfaction.

The third World Aquatic Championship in history was held that August in Berlin. The East German women’s team had dominated the 1976 Olympic Games and appeared to be the best team in the world—until the American “kiddy corps” of Woodhead, Tracy Caulkins, Kim Linehan and others showed up. The USA women upset the DDR, and Sippy set a world record in the 200-meter freestyle of 1:58.5 She added a 4:07.1 in the 400 freestyle, (a time that would have placed fourth at the 2012 USA Olympic Trials), both times still stand as the second and third fastest NAGs in the USA.

In 1979, Sippy broke the world record two more times in the 200 and won five gold medals at the major international competition, the Pan American Games. There was only one more year to the Olympics in Moscow. She had to be patient to show the world what she could do.

At one point in 1980, she was ranked number one in the world in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. It was a matter of months before the Olympic Games would be held in Moscow, in the Soviet Union. But President Carter decided to boycott the Olympics because the host country initiated a war by launching a military invasion into their neighboring country of Afghanistan.

Sippy’s patience, and hard work, paid off four years later when she finally was able to compete in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles and won a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle. Swimmers, coaches and parents all benefit from patience in swimming, just as Sippy did.

Three keys are: 

  • Let your work work for you. It takes time.
  • A tiny improvement each day creates a massive development over months and years.
  • A young person develops maturity when they can demonstrate self-discipline today for a payoff months down the road. The biggest payment comes years later as a swimmer’s character solidifies and grows. Great parents understand that fact and are patient for that ultimate payoff.