Golden moments: Debbie Meyer talks Olympic swimming
Swimming these days isn’t what it used to be back in, say, 1968.
Just ask Truckee Tahoe Swim Team coach Debbie Meyer, who ruled the sport in her heyday, winning three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. At age 16, she became the first swimmer to achieve such a feat in a single Olympic Games.
While the 55-year-old Tahoe Donner resident established 20 world records and 24 U.S. records as a teen, the gold standard of her era has since been slashed by the world’s elite.
It’s been a steady progression. But with vastly improved training regimens, tweaked techniques and Speedo’s high-tech new LZR Racer swimsuit, swimmers at the Beijing Games are shattering records at record pace.
“The (Speedo) suits have a lot to do with it ” and the training,” says Meyer, who’s been following the events closely on television. “Everything is so precise with the exercises they do. Everything is extremely scientific today. We just got in the pool and swam.”
Given the same technology, would she have set higher marks today?
“Oh, heavens yes,” Meyer says, adding that besides innovations in the sport, the grand stage of the Games also brings out the best in athletes.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people,” she says. “Their adrenaline gets going, they’ve been training for it, they’ve tapered for it and they’re just ready for it. And the suits help.”
Despite the contrasts between then and now, similarities exist. Like NASA’s involvement in the sport, Meyer says. For example, while the LZR Racer was developed with the help of NASA to reduce drag in the water, Meyer, too, was tested by NASA two years before man set foot on the moon.
“I remember in 1967 NASA did tests on myself and others ” Dr. Goddard ” in Albuquerque (N.M.) to see how the body works in altitude for the guys going to the moon. So it goes back,” says Meyer, then a student at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento. “I was 15 at the time. They used athletes because they were as fit as the astronauts had to be. All I knew was that I had to leave a vacation early and I wasn’t happy.”
There’s no telling if Meyer reached her full potential. She gave up swimming less than a year before the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when her 1968 teammate, Mark Spitz, set a new standard with seven gold medals. Meyer was 19 1/2 when she quit.
“I had every intent to swim in Munich, but seven months before the Games I decided that wasn’t in my game plan,” she says. “It wasn’t fun anymore. Competing wasn’t exciting.”
Plus, Meyer says, back then there were few ways to make a living swimming competitively, and for women it wasn’t even a collegiate sport yet.
Thinking back on her decision, Meyer says she tries not to second guess, because there’s no point in dwelling on what could have been.
“I really don’t know,” she says when asked how she would have fared in Munich. “I don’t think about that because then I might start to doubt myself.”
Her exploits in the Mexico City Games earned her the Associated Press’ Woman Athlete of the Year honors in 1969, and in 1977 she was voted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She says she can’t pin down a single athletic accomplishment for which she is most proud.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing. I think just the total package,” Meyer says. “I loved every minute of it, even the days when I hated working out.”
The U.S. swim team may not have a more devout fan than Meyer, who says she’s been glued to her TV cheering for her countrymen in Beijing.
“Overall I think they (American swimmers) have done a fabulous job,” Meyer says. “I’m pleased overall with how the amphibious crew is doing.”
She’s been following American Katie Hoff, in particular, mainly because of the similarities between the two.
“I’m rooting for her because she swims the same three events I did ” the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles,” Meyer says. “I just hope she’s not disappointed (with her performance). Coming back for two Olympics isn’t easy. I only did one.”
Like most Americans tuned in to the Games, Meyer also is pulling for Michael Phelps to break Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in 1972. Phelps won his sixth gold in Beijing in as many attempts in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday. He wraps up his events with the 100 butterfly Friday and the 400 medley relay Saturday.
“He’s a nice kid. And he is a kid,” Meyer says of Phelps, whom she has met in person, along with many other team members. “He’s very well mannered, very personable and extremely focused.”
Spitz, on the other hand ” who recently criticized the U.S. swim team for not inviting him to the Games ” had a more arrogant disposition during his prime, Meyer says.
“Mark was all about Mark, and it wasn’t a secret,” says Meyer, who last saw her former teammate a couple years ago.
Asked which achievement is more impressive, Spitz’s seven golds in ’72 or Phelps’ eight in ’08 ” presuming he reaches the mark ” Meyer ranks the two equally.
“They’re both impressive,” she says, adding that Spitz was an “extremely versatile” swimmer, like Phelps. “It’s too hard to say one over the other. The training and technique and everything has changed so much.”
It’s just not what it used to be.