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HIGH LIFE : In the Family Swim : Babashoff Hopes to Follow Siblings to Olympic Stardom

April 23, 1988|KRISTIN HARDEMAN | Kristin Hardeman, a senior at Fountain Valley High School, is the editor of her school newspaper, Baron Banner, a four-year member of the tennis team and a member of the Spanish club

"All My Children."

A soap opera, yes, but also reality for Vera and Jack Babashoff, parents of four national and international swimming stars.

It also happens to be Debbie Babashoff's favorite TV show, the one the senior turns on every day when she gets home from her classes at Fountain Valley High School.

Debbie, the youngest Babashoff, looks to be the typical California girl with her sun-streaked hair and golden-brown tan. But more that that, she is a dedicated, serious and talented swimmer with hopes of competing in the 1988 Summer Olympics and taking her place alongside her sister, Shirley, and brothers, Jack and Bill.

Bill swam on the U.S. national team and was a high school All-American. Jack swam in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, winning a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Shirley swam in two Olympics--1972 and 1976--and won two gold and six silver medals.

The amazing element of the Babashoff story is that their mother is terrified of the water. Vera Babashoff enrolled her children in swim classes to ensure that they would be water safe.

"I have fears of water even today," Vera said. "I didn't want my kids to grow up that way. I wanted them to feel comfortable in water."

More than comfortable, the Babashoff offspring feel downright at home.

At 17, Debbie is 15 years younger than Jack, 13 years younger than Shirley and 11 years younger than Bill.

"I'm the youngest by so much, it's almost like I'm the only child," Debbie said about her life at home, now that her brothers have moved out. "But my brothers and sister were and still are always supportive."

Though there is a wide age gap, Debbie can recall times when Jack, Bill and Shirley were there for her, giving her stroke tips as she grew up around swimming pools.

Debbie remembered her younger years, watching her brothers and sister leave on trips, traveling here and there for swim meets. It's something she always longed to do.

She fondly recalled "doing everything together" with Shirley.

"She'd take me swimming after her races," Debbie said. "I'd go to shake her hand after she won a race, and she'd pull me in every time."

Debbie was 2 when Shirley participated in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. "No one in the family went, though, because they had to stay home with me," Debbie said.

"I hear stories about the snipers in Munich, but I guess I was too young to know what was going on then. I just remember how nervous my mom was."

In those Olympics, eight Arab terrorists attacked the quarters of the Israeli team, killing two Israelis and taking nine others hostage. All the hostages, five terrorists and a West German police officer died in a battle at an airport several hours later.

"Now, my mom and Shirley talk about how stupid it was for Shirley to go out and walk around, trying to find out what was going on (in the athletic complex)."

A few years later, Debbie nearly gave up swimming altogether. At 7 1/2, she wanted instead to play softball, her favorite sport.

"I still love to play when I have time," she said. "I guess I liked softball because it is a more interesting and exciting sport than swimming.

"Swimming is boring unless you're watching someone that you know."

Her mother helped her make her decision by giving her a choice.

"I chose swimming because it has a better future for women than baseball," said Debbie, who was influenced by her brothers and sister telling her how great their sport was.

Debbie said she never felt pressured by the success of her siblings. She wants to succeed on her own and doesn't think she has to prove herself to anyone.

But last summer, Debbie's swim times began to fall off. She said she wasn't having fun anymore. She said she was burned out.

Her mother talked her into switching swim teams. So, last June, after seven years with the Mission Viejo Nadadores, Debbie moved up the freeway to train with the Irvine Novaquatics under Coach Flip Darr.

Her new coach noticed an immediate change in Babashoff. "She found out that she could swim and have fun," Darr said, "that it wasn't a drag.

"She's a very self-motivated and hard-driving yet fun person," said Darr, who added that Babashoff has what it takes to reach the Olympics.

"Swimmers need self-confidence and a lot of support from their families, their coaches and their peers. . . . Yeah, she's definitely got it."

Babashoff gives up most of her Saturdays to swimming, with workouts from 7 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. She also has two workouts every weekday, before and after school. Three nights a week, her schedule includes weight lifting.

She misses a lot of school because of meets, but maintains a 3.4 grade-point average.

Last year, she went on a European swimming tour, swam in Australia and Canada and attended a U.S. national team training camp for a week in North Carolina.

"This year, I haven't gone on many trips," Babashoff said. "I went to a training camp in Hawaii and spent two weeks at the nationals (in Orlando, Fla.). Then, I spent a day here and there for (college) recruit trips."

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