Mary T. Meagher is back from the World Championships in Madrid, back on the Cal campus, and back answering the same old questions about why United States women swimmers can't catch the East German women.
Ever since the East German women dominated the 1976 Olympics, American women have been trying to explain it. The U.S. women did manage to win the team title in the 1978 World Championships, but in the '82 World meet at Guayaquil, Ecuador, the East Germans were back on top.
This time around, the U.S. won the most medals, 32 to the East Germans' 30, but the breakdown shows the United States with 24 in swimming, 4 in diving, 3 in synchronized swimming and 1 in water polo. All of East Germany's medals were in swimming, and its women accounted for 13 gold medals and 4 world records. U.S. women won only 2 gold medals in swimming and set no world records.
The U.S. women finished second to the East Germans in all three relays.
Meagher had as much success as anyone on the U.S. team, and still came away disappointed. She is the Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in both the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, and yet she won just one gold medal in Madrid, in the 200 butterfly. She finished third in the 100 and came home with one gold and two bronze medals for individual events and three silver medals for relays.
"It's especially frustrating because it's not like they were even swimming tons faster than we were," Meagher said. "Our times from the trials would have challenged them in many events. I don't know whether it was the food, the sickness, the time change or what, but we just didn't have a very good meet."
All of those things were factors, with most members of the American team suffering from stomach illnesses at some point. Meagher was up, sick, in the early morning hours before her 100-meter swim.
But that still leaves the question of why the East German women always seem to be just out of reach for an American team that can handle challengers from all other nations. What do they do differently?
"I think right now, what it's coming down to is the way of their life style and culture," Meagher said. "They can really specialize. Not just to specialize in swimming and go to special schools for swimmers, but they even admit that all their butterfliers work in one pool, all their backstrokers in another pool.
"They have scientific nutritionists with them at all times. This is what we hear. Supposedly. No one really knows for sure.
"For us, swimmers are very dedicated, and we all work our entire lives around our swimming. But for them, it's like swimming is their entire life. They'll go to a swimming school, and when they graduate, their certificate says they were a swimmer."
She chuckled at the notion that she might be working on a swimming degree during these years at Berkeley. "No, I've designed a program of study in child development," she said. "Here at Cal, where the academic side is so challenging, you can't make the swim team the whole focus of your life.
"I think American swimmers work very hard. People can never believe it when we talk about the hours and the yardage. It's not like we're more lazy or anything. But we just don't expect a swimmer to give up everything else.
"I don't think we would want to have their culture."
Meagher admits that every international meet strengthens her pro-American, patriotic feelings. And she's confident that, eventually, American women swimmers will work their way back up within our way of life.
"I have to keep an optimistic outlook," she said. "They (the East Germans) can't continue to progress at the rate they did after they first got to this level. They concentrated on some scientific training techniques that were new, taking lactate and studying effects of nutrition and time changes--all things that we do now.
"We just happen to have a real young team right now, and this was their first taste of international competition. I'm sure some of those younger swimmers will come up."
But how about the older ones? Meagher, who is nearing 22 and who will complete her eligibility at Cal after this season, and Betsy Mitchell, who is 20 and a junior at the University of Texas, won the only gold medals for the Americans. Doesn't that leave them with a responsibility to stay in competitive swimming for a while? At least through the 1988 Olympics?
"In a lot of ways, yes, it's a responsibility," Meagher said. "But I don't think of it as a negative pressure. It's more of a pride. If I'm one of the few Americans who can still beat the East Germans, I want to do that."