Until the spell was broken following the 1968 Olympics, Debbie Meyer swam as if possessed, her tender years firing her to a high competitive pitch. If her three-hour-a-day workouts allowed little time for the demands of high school, it made no difference to the California teen-ager, who blithely recited homework to herself as she reeled off practice laps. In view of the three gold-medals she subsequently won in Mexico City, it was appropriate that one assignment she fulfilled in that fashion was to memorize Mark Antony's oration in praise of the all-conquering Caesar.
More recently, if no less fittingly, Debbie's submarine Shakespeare has included Hamlet's "'to be or not to be" soliloquy. On her return from Mexico she suffered a classic post-Olympic letdown. She moped around her parents' ranch-style home in Sacramento agonizing openly and at length over whether to retire from swimming. Having realized her heart's desire at the Olympics, she now had few new experiences in swimming to look forward to—except possibly the wholly unwelcome one of losing. Only this past spring did Debbie finally decide to remain in the swim until the 1972 Olympics. "I want to defend my Olympic titles," she declared, her old desire beginning to smolder. "I'd like to stay en top a while longer."
Debbie's resolve will be getting a thoroughgoing test. Earlier this month she turned 18, which in the compressed world of women's swimming makes her, strange though it may sound, one of the sport's venerable figures. The changes that have come over her are pleasant enough. While nobody was looking she has sneaked up to 5'7½", nearly three inches taller than when she set her first world record at 14. Her button cuteness has ripened into a dimple-cheeked prettiness. Most wondrous of all, such expressions as "crummy" and "go jump in the lake" have separated themselves from her vocabulary like chaff from the grain.
If the passage of time has affected Debbie's swimming, it was not immediately evident at last week's AAU outdoor championships in Los Angeles. On opening night, she pared nearly two-tenths of a second off her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4:24.343. The next evening, however, she finished only third in the 400-meter individual medley, both her backstroke and breaststroke failing her. Returning to the freestyle on Sunday, Debbie easily won the 1,500. Although she failed to break the 800- or 1,500-meter records, as she had hoped, she said afterward, "I'm just satisfied I won."
August 30, 1970
Debbie's performance in the 400 free was just one among 13 world records broken at the meet, which can only enhance the reputation of the Los Angeles Swim Stadium as one of the world's fastest pools. The suggestion that a swimming pool can be fast, the same as a track, may sound as if somebody had gone out and invented AstroWater, but in fact, the explanation has to do with the pool, not the water in it. Built for the 1932 Olympics and situated inspirationally in the shadow of the Los Angeles Coliseum, it is, quite simply, deeper—five feet at the shallowest point—than other pools, which generally taper to 3½ feet or less. This reduces waves that can slow a swimmer down. Something that accomplishes the same thing is the conformation of the gutters in the Swim Stadium, which tend to trap waves rather than allow them to wash back into the pool.
Probably the main reason that the Swim Stadium is fast, though, is that swimmers like Debbie Meyer, who set three world records there in the 1968 Olympic Trials, have come to consider it so. Before leaving for the AAUs, Debbie put up a sign in her bedroom in Sacramento reading, "L.A. Is the Fastest Pool in the West." "Swimming in this pool is like being on a surfboard and having somebody push you," said Debbie, who demonstrated that she still is—when she wants to be—the fastest female afloat.
The key question, of course, is how badly she really wants to be. Having graduated in June from Sacramento's Rio Americano High School, Debbie will enroll next month at American River College, a local two-year school. That will enable her to live at home and continue training with Sherm Chavoor, her coach at the Arden Hills Swim Club, a taskmaster who stresses endurance and obedience and thinks nothing of bellowing at his star swimmer, "Come on, you little nut, stop loafing. Show me some guts. You're driving me fruity."
Unfortunately, swimming is not fully compatible with growing up, this being a clear case of two kinds of pain competing jealously for the same victim. Despite her determination to continue swimming Debbie has lately been more balky ("how come no rest between laps, huh, Sherm?") than obedient. That may sometimes strain but has never actually impaired the affection that exists between Chavoor and herself. Asked not long ago whether theirs was a love-hate relationship, she answered softly, "Yes, but the hate is temporary and the love is permanent."
The pressures at work on Debbie were apparent over the weekend of her high school graduation, which was held in Sacramento's colonnaded municipal auditorium. Seated among her classmates Debbie fidgeted with her program, exchanged whispers with the boy next to her and scanned the balcony for a glimpse of her parents and three brothers. Suddenly she stirred to the sound of her name. "The valedictorian and salutatorian of the female sports world," the speaker said and Debbie, a tassel bobbing before her blue eyes like an insistent fly, arose to friendly applause. She appeared poised although, as she confided afterward, "I couldn't have been more embarrassed."
Later that evening Debbie attended the Class of 1970's all-night party at a bowling alley, but only after pausing to celebrate at home with her family. The first thing she did on entering the house was to make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a food that has been such a favorite of hers that a local sports-writer once tried to dub her "Peanut." The name didn't stick but the peanut butter did and Debbie, in honor of the occasion, washed it down with champagne.
If Chavoor could have had his way the valedictorian and salutatorian of the female sports world would have been asleep by midnight. Instead she remained at the bowling alley until daybreak. When she arrived the following day at practice, her first in nearly 48 hours, she was tired and achy. By the time the Arden Hills swimmers completed their first series of laps it was obvious that Debbie was struggling. "What's wrong with you?" demanded Chavoor.
"I'm sore all over," Debbie replied, clutching the edge of the pool. "I must have bowled 40 games."
"Who told you to bowl, you little nut?"
"Well, I had to do something. I couldn't just stand around all night."
After watching his charges swim a while longer Chavoor threw his hands into the air in horror. "These times on my stopwatch are awful," he cried.
He was addressing all the swimmers, but it was Debbie who spoke up. "Then why don't you wind it?" she asked.
That afternoon Debbie relaxed on the patio behind her house. She still wore her bathing suit and over it a football jersey that used to belong to her 20-year-old brother Cliff. A glass of iced tea in her hand, she watched as Cliff, home for the summer from Rutgers, tossed a Frisbee around on the lawn with the two younger Meyer boys, Jeff, 14, and Karl, 9. Nearby, their father Leonard (Bud) Meyer inspected a lawn-mower blade that had been damaged by a baseball that somebody—the evidence pointed to Little Leaguer Karl—had left under the pink oleander bush. Meanwhile, Betty Meyer was preparing dinner ("ugh, lamb," shuddered Debbie when the scent reached her) in the kitchen. Everybody was barefoot, as if shoes had been formally banned by some sort of family council.
Sipping thoughtfully on her iced tea, Debbie turned her attention from Frisbee to swimming. "There are a lot of girls who'd love to beat me," she said with an air of wonderment, as though it had dawned on her only that moment. "That puts pressure on me. But I just try to stay calm and set goals for myself. I'm glad I decided to keep swimming. If I hadn't I don't know what I would've done with myself." She chewed on an ice cube. "I guess that it's sort of like playing king of the mountain."
As the 1972 Olympics draw nearer it may just be, as Chavoor insists it is, that "Debbie hasn't yet begun to scratch the surface of her abilities." Although her mark in the 800 meters has recently been broken, she still holds world freestyle records at 200, 400 and 1,500 meters, plus a grand total of nine American records. Last year, despite her post-Olympic doldrums, she posted the year's best times in three freestyle races and in the 400 IM. The latter is an event she began swimming in a big way after the Olympics, and until last week's poor showing at the AAUs she had been improving steadily. Chavoor would rather have seen her concentrate on her various freestyle specialties, but he bowed to her desire to try the IM as a way of keeping her interested in swimming. "Anything to amuse her," he shrugged. "Anything that will keep her from getting bored with it all."
Coming on top of her strength in the freestyle (her gold medals in Mexico were in the 200, 400 and 800 meters), Debbie's flirtation with the IM, along with a probable move into the 100 free and a couple of relays, make her a long-range contender, theoretically, in as many as seven events at Munich.
If this sounds ominously like the kind of buildup that preceded Mark Spitz' disappointing showing in Mexico, the parallel is not lost on Debbie, who realizes that she has reached an age at which many female swimmers have faltered. This has less to do with any biological facts of life, as is sometimes supposed, than it does with motivation. Unlike their male counterparts, who have a full program of college competition and scholarships to spur them on, the incentives for women swimmers, apart from the Olympics, consist of just three or four big meets a year. The matter of incentives is important because staving on top in swimming requires much the same dogged work as getting there, which is not the case, say, in playing king—or queen—of the mountain.
Of her situation today Debbie Meyer says, "I'd better watch out or else one of these 13-year-olds is going to come along and beat me." She says it without cracking a smile, as if recalling her own rise to the top, one that occurred so quickly and unexpectedly that her father still shakes his head and marvels, "Sometimes I can't get over living with a champion." Debbie was 8, hardly young by the standards of the sport, when Bud and Betty Meyer started her in competitive swimming back in Haddonfield, N.J., and by the time Meyer, a plant executive for Campbell Soup Co., was transferred to Sacramento in 1965 his 12-year-old daughter was still an also-swam in local AAU county meets.
Arriving at Arden Hills, Debbie plunged eagerly into the pool only to drag herself out, too exhausted to even complete Chavoor's arduous daily workouts. But she responded to the challenge and her growing strength, on top of a classic stroke, made her a natural for Chavoor's racing strategy, which is to go out in front and stay there. It was only a matter of months before Chavoor jubilantly told the Meyers, "I think we've got ourselves a champion." In July 1967, barely two years after moving to California, Debbie set her first world record, lowering the old mark in the 400 freestyle by more than five seconds.
Other world records fell apace, including those three in a single week at the 1968 Olympic Trials. While Debbie was training with the U.S. team in Colorado Springs her father sent her a card reading: HAPPINESS IS A GOLD MEDAL. The card came back, its message altered in a girlish hand to read: HAPPINESS IS THREE GOLD MEDALS. When Debbie returned from Mexico, Rio Americano High closed for the afternoon to honor her and its other Olympic swimmers, Arden Hills teammates Sue Pedersen, Vicki King and Johnny Ferris.
Rio Americano, a suburban-style school designed in the soft pastels and cool lines of a Kleenex box, boasts other assets besides good swimmers, including a well-stocked resource center, this being the kind of facility known at less-favored schools as the library. What with her underwater study habits, Debbie hit the resources hard enough to maintain a B average, although she had cause to wonder about one of those Bs. It was in swimming, precision swimming, actually, and her problem, in effect, was that she did not swim slowly enough to comply with the easy, rhythmic style prescribed by the course. Moved by the irony of it all, the queen of the swimmers proudly showed her B in swimming around for all to see.
The time she devoted to her sport, along with the fame she achieved in return, tended to set Debbie somewhat apart from her classmates. The inscriptions they entered in her school yearbook were short on breezy familiarities ("Love ya, Deb") and long on formalities bordering on the ceremonial. "I must admit I was very honored to know you," one classmate wrote, while another signed, "From a devout swimming fan." More casual, if no less awed, was the boy who wrote, "Be cool, keep the faith and don't turn into a fish."
"I could have become more involved in high school," Debbie admits. "I missed some of the action, things like dances and football games. And I wish I'd dated more often." As part of a deliberate effort to play down swimming, her bedroom is adorned with the inevitable Paul Newman poster and strewn with record albums—everything from Andy Williams to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—but she has long since cleared away her trophies and medals. "It used to be embarrassing when kids came over," she explains. It is for similar reasons that she abides the display of only one trophy in the family living room: the Sullivan Award she won as the nation's top amateur athlete of 1968.
Debbie has benefited from the kind of parental sacrifice so common in swimming. Soon after the family's arrival in Sacramento, Bud Meyer was transferred again, this time to Modesto, Calif., but he has elected to commute 140 miles round trip ever since, rather than take Debbie away from Chavoor. Still, the Meyers are careful not to compound her pressures. "The moment swimming isn't fun any more you better quit," her father advises and Debbie replies, "If my parents were pushy I think I would have quit long ago."
The Meyers' laissez-faire approach is also appreciated by Chavoor, who can think of plenty of overbearing swimming parents who might do well to follow their example. "When their kid wins it's heredity," he says of such people. "When their kid loses, it's the coach." Lately, though, Chavoor has actually turned to the Meyers for assistance in handling Debbie, with the result that the delicate triangular relationship between coach, parents and swimmer has been buffeted by gentle shock waves running along the hypotenuse.
One problem that concerns Chavoor is Debbie's weight, currently 127 pounds, eight pounds more than at the Olympics. In the Meyer kitchen Debbie has posted two clippings on the refrigerator, one a diet for shedding pounds quickly, the other a recipe for butterscotch squares. To the Meyers, Chavoor urgently pleads, "We've got to do something about her weight."
"You're the coach, Sherm," Betty Meyer replies cheerily.
"Well, I'm not around when the little nut is stuffing herself."
The various shadings of Chavoor's dealings with Debbie came into bolder relief at the national indoor championships last spring in Cincinnati, where Debbie entered the 400-yard IM over the objections of her coach, who felt she had a better chance of winning the 200. His judgment seemed vindicated when Debbie just barely qualified in eighth place in the IM trials. Before the finals Chavoor, whose 60th birthday it was, sat in his motel room complaining to the Meyers, "If she'd listen to me, maybe she'd be a good swimmer some day." Only then did he notice Debbie's solemn face in the doorway.
As she stepped forward for the start of the IM finals Debbie neither waved to friends nor chatted with opponents, as she often does. Her eyes were frozen on the water. She proceeded to win the event in 4:34.2, nine seconds faster than her time in the trials. When Chavoor leaned over at poolside to congratulate her, Debbie planted a kiss on his cheek. "How's that for a birthday present, Sherm?" she asked.
So long as she can summon it at will, Debbie's competitive spirit remains her greatest strength. One rival who inspires her, and she is to be found right there at Arden Hills, is Vicki King, a teenager from St. Louis whose parents sent her to Sacramento to swim for Chavoor three years ago. On her arrival Vicki moved in with the Meyers. In the past year she has emerged as a serious threat to Debbie in distance events. The two girls are not close, and Vicki has since found another home. At practice Chavoor usually divides his swimmers into two groups, and Debbie invariably gravitates toward one, Vicki the other.
Debbie, six months Vicki's elder, sounds a note of conciliation when she says, "I can't hold a grudge against Vicki. All she wants is to knock me off. I knocked other girls off without batting an eyelash."
Another tormentor is Karen Moras, a 16-year-old Australian who twice defeated Debbie when the latter toured Australia last January. It was summer Down Under and Debbie's off season, but the results were a confidence builder for Karen, and it was she who subsequently broke Debbie's record in the 800-meter freestyle, most recently with a 9:02.45 clocking last month in Scotland. Only a week earlier, Debbie had swum the same event in the Santa Clara (Calif.) Invitational in a disappointing 9:14.63, hardly a performance to allay the doubts reflected by one West Coast newspaper headline that read: DEBBIE'S SWIM DYNASTY TOTTERS.
As that suggests, it is tempting to regard anything less than a world record on Debbie's part as a sign she is slipping. The specter haunts nobody more than it does Chavoor, who hopes that his swimmer will become more tenacious as the Munich Olympics draw near. "She's holding back a little now because she doesn't want to hurt as much," he says. "Sometimes I ask myself, am I doing the right thing by torturing her this way? But then I think of all that ability she has. It's driving me fruity."
Both Debbie and Chavoor were reasonably satisfied with her performance at Los Angeles last week. They were enthusiastic over her new freestyle mark—her first world record in more than a year—and Chavoor, who was still nurturing the hope that she would abandon the IM, was pleased when Debbie admitted, "I found out one thing at this meet. My bag is freestyle."
Wherever that revelation leads her, it apparently had the effect for now of unburdening her. Between events she wore any of a dozen-odd T shirts and curled up at poolside reading Coffee, Tea or Me?, the bestseller about airline stewardesses. Debbie pronounced the book "a gas" but fretted over one racy passage purportedly involving an ex-Olympic woman swimmer. "It gave the wrong impression," she said.
One of the T shirts she wore was a shapeless smoke-colored affair she had bought a few months ago. It had come with the inscription, "Munich 1972??" But Debbie, in an alteration reminiscent of the one she had performed on her father's card in 1968, had made it read: "Munich 1972!!" Recently, however, the ink she applied had faded, the result of too many washings. As if to mock her, the question marks on the shirt were now plainly visible.