Babashoff et al

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Watching the Swimming Olympic Trials this week is on one hand inspiring, seeing world records fall, anticipating the excitement of following these athletes through to their dreams in China---understanding the many hours and days and years of discipline these athletes have put in. Just to make the final eight in any given Trials event takes special talent, extraordinary sacrifice. But it unnerves me when the gun goes off, knowing that after a mere minute or two of supreme physical and mental effort, after a long decade of dedication, only two will go to Beijing. The others, after all those laps, all those 5am workouts, all those lofty dreams, will go on to the rest of their lives.

Tuesday brought heartache for Hayley McGregory. She swam out of her mind in the daytime preliminary heats of the 100 backstroke. She broke the world record. For a couple of minutes, she was not only top-dog American, a shoe-in to represent the U.S. in China. She was the best in the world. But the ecstasy faded fast. In the very next heat, versatile superstar Natalie Coughlin ratcheted up her competitive fire and spoiled McGregory's short-lived glory. She lowered the world record even further. And by the time the gun sounded for the nighttime final of the 100 backstroke, McGregory's ecstasy of a few hours before turned to agony. She was neck-and-neck with Coughlin to the turn and still stroke-for-stroke with her to the final touch pad. But cruelty swept over McGregory's lane as she threw her fingertips to the wall. Coughlin was first. But, just a whisper of .06 of a second before McGregory touched, Margaret Hoelzer sneaked in for second. McGregory was third and that world record she held for two minutes was a world of hurt away. To add insult to injury, Coughlin and Hoelzer, breathing hard yet exhilarated to be 1-2 and Beijing bound together, hugged and bonded across the very lane line over which McGregory was slumped, alone with her overwhelming disappointment. Alone with her memories of Athens four years ago. She was third in the 100 backstroke at those Olympic Trials, too.

Katie Hoff is having a great Trials. She could well be the first American woman to win all four freestyle distances at a Trials since Shirley Babashoff was our freestyle queen 32 years ago. It was just now, July, 1976, that Babashoff broke six American and one world record a few weeks before the Montreal Games. She was touted the Mark Spitz of her Olympics, with realistic expectations of bringing home six gold medals. Before the competition started in Montreal, Babashoff was warming up in a lane with East German powerhouse Kornelia Ender. They happened to stop at one end together. When Babashoff's teammate Wendy Boglioli came into the wall, Babashoff nudged her and whispered that the afternoon sun had revealed a man's beard shadow on Ender's face. And in the locker room, Babashoff urged her American teammates to listen carefully to the East German women's voices. They were deep baritones. Babashoff continued to point a steroid finger of accusation throughout the Games but nobody believed her. The press maligned her, even nicknamed her Surly Shirley. In her individual events, Babashoff kept hitting the wall second, each time behind hugely muscled East German cheaters.

Shirley Babashoff went into a decades-long seclusion after Montreal, delivering mail in Southern California cul-de-sacs, and refusing interviews.

She was, of course, proven right many years later, but the facts never did turn her silver medals to gold.

Then, of course, the next Games were Moscow, the year Jimmy Carter used the American team to boycott for his political statement. Stories of bitter loss abound from 1980.

The Olympic Games. They're not all high-minded inspiration. There's plenty of heartbreak every four years as well.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad