Lessons from Legends: Shirley Babashoff and Refining or Defining Yourself


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

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 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 the100 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 (DDR) 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)"…

The press took any suggestion of drug use by the DDR women, made by Shirley, or anyone else, as poor sportsmanship. Some nicknamed the 19-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. Here are three actions you might take: 

  • Meet with your coach and discuss ways you can improve your training before your next performance.
  • Ask yourself if you were in a good mental state. Were you excited to race?
  • If a video is available, watch it and look at your pace, your start and your turns. Where can you improve? Ask your coach for help.

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 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 was the anchor. 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, one might wonder: How have the controversial performance results of her giving her best in Montreal refined her or defined her?

After the DDR was exposed in 2007 for it’s 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 And Then They Won Gold (Small)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. 

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.  

ArenaBMWMarriottMyrtha PoolsOmegaPhillips 66SpeedoTYR