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BACK IN THE SWIM : Mary T. Meagher Resumes Her Pursuit of Olympic Medals

Times Staff Writer

It was just after 6 a.m., still pitch-dark on a frosty morning, and the scribbled directions to the Mary T. Meagher Natatorium were not working. Surely somewhere nearby somebody was up feeding chickens or doing whatever it is they do with race horses before the sun comes up in the Bluegrass State. But there was no one to help on this lonely stretch of road.

Betting on a street that wound through a golf course to the only lighted building in sight finally paid off. Another car passed by, stopped, backed up. A young girl with wet hair tucked up inside a stocking cap rolled down an icy window and asked: “Are you the reporter Mary T. gave the wrong directions to? She felt just terrible about that. But you found it. She’s right in that building. She’s still in the water.”

Indeed. Stated so simply. After all these years, Mary T. Meagher is still in the water.

She is 23. She has her degree from the University of California. She has three gold medals from the ’84 Olympics and countless others from every possible national and international competition. She still holds the world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly events that she first claimed before the ’80 Olympics were boycotted.

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She is known worldwide as Madame Butterfly.

It would be so easy to retire now, to go out on top as the champion.

But this is not about what’s easy. She has decided to put herself on the line one more time, to test herself against the East Germans and Soviets she has been wanting to meet in all-out competition since the disappointment in ’80.

Mary T. has come home to train for the ’88 Olympic Games at Seoul.

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After a mere five-month break in search of sanity, she is back to setting her alarm, getting up in the chill of the night and driving the family station wagon to the pool that spawned her.

On this morning she was sharing a lane with 17-year-old Dorsey Tierney, a promising breaststroker.

Quite an honor for a youngster, huh? Getting to train with Mary T.?

“Oh, no, it’s just the opposite,” Meagher says in earnest. “I don’t know what I’d do without Dorsey. I’ve been having a really hard time, mentally, lately. I’m the kind of swimmer, I need somebody pushing me and encouraging me and not letting me get out of the pool when I get tired.

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“A couple of times, I’ve been trying to climb out, and Dorsey has actually pulled me back in and made me go just a little bit more. She still has that excitement, that enthusiasm, that it’s hard for me to find every day after all these years.”

Meagher has climbed out of the pool after the prescribed 90 minutes to do a live, pool-side interview with the local TV station’s morning show. The host is back in the studio, so Meagher is working with just a cameraman, who gives her a second to grab a towel and sit down on a starting block before he clips on a microphone, adjusts the audio level of the earphone and points out the tiny monitor.

In the few minutes she has before going on, she wishes Dorsey well on her recruiting visit to the University of Texas; reminds Dorsey to take the peanut butter cookies that she made the night before for her sister, Peg Meagher, who is a swimmer at Texas; makes sure that the out-of-town reporter and photographer have been properly introduced to the coaches; apologizes for the umpteenth time for the bad directions; chats about her next “competition,” a challenge from “some guy” who put her in a no-win situation when he wrote to NBC about his sports fantasy to race her in a 50-yard butterfly heat; wonders if she should have at least combed her hair; and asks the cameraman if he needs a microphone check or anything.

A moment later, she looks into the camera and greets the host with a bright, “Hi, Andy,” sounding like someone off the set of the “The Andy Griffith Show.” When Mary T. comes home, her Southern accent comes home, too.

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It’s obvious that Mary T. is being asked about the honor she had received just a few days before in Nashville, Tenn., where she picked up the Honda-Broderick Cup as the country’s top collegiate female athlete.

That latest honor had brought out a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal, too, the afternoon before. While Meagher is busy, Monty Hopkins, coach of the Lakeside Swim Club, is asked about the attention Meagher brings to his club when she comes home. His meet in a couple of weeks will get some national exposure, for example, when NBC comes to film that “Sports Fantasy.”

“It’s interesting that you should ask about that, because Mary T. surprised me on that subject yesterday,” Hopkins said. “I don’t usually talk with anyone on the deck, because I’m too busy keeping track of all the different workouts the kids are doing. But I figure swimming gets little enough attention that when a reporter comes out, I should make time.

“I had been answering questions about Mary T. during the afternoon workout when Mary T. told me that she didn’t think it was fair for me to talk about her during the kids’ time. My first reaction was defensive, like anyone who has been criticized. But I told her later that she had a good point.

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“That shows you how sensitive she is about not coming in here and disrupting our training. We’re honored to have her here, and we appreciate the way she always mentions her club anytime she does an interview, but she doesn’t come back and act like we should be honored.”

No doubt her family should get some credit for her attitude and outlook. At least, that’s what she always says. Mary T. lights up when she talks about her family.

And she has to talk about her family constantly, every time she explains the T.

Here’s the story, one more time, for anyone who hasn’t already heard it:

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Mary T. is the 10th child in an Irish Catholic family of 11 children. She has eight older sisters, one older brother and one younger sister.

When Mary T. was born, the oldest daughter, Mary, was at the convent and about to take her vows. When she became a nun, she would be given a new name. So the new baby daughter was named Mary in honor of the first, who would no longer be using the name. Then the oldest daughter decided not to take her vows, and the family had two Marys.

The newest Mary became known by the initial of her middle name, Terstegge, the maiden name of her mother, Floy.

That definitely does not make Mary T. her mother’s favorite. And she’s certainly not the only achiever in the family. Over morning tea, Mary T.'s mother was asked to talk about the accomplishments of her other children.

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“Oh, my goodness,” she said, checking her watch. “You don’t have time for that.”

Actually, the Meaghers are pretty private people. They had never allowed reporters into their home until the Olympics in ’84, when ABC called for an “Up Close and Personal” segment.

But it was mentioned at the pool that Peg had won an academic award in her engineering major at Texas. And it’s certainly no secret that Anne Meagher Northup was recently elected a state representative.

Anne has children who are now swimming with the Lakeside Club. Showing distress at how old it makes her feel, Mary T. said, “One of my nephews is old enough to drive to the pool!”

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Whatever happened to the first Mary? She’s living in Georgia with her husband and five children.

Mary T. and her brother are the only ones living at home now with their mother and their recently retired father, Jim. There would be no confusion now if she just went by Mary, but her name is too strongly established as Mary T.

Some of her swimming cohorts call her, simply, T. Everyone in her hometown knows her as Mary T. The few who do say her last name all know to pronounce it as Mah-her.

But mostly the whispers she hears when she walks through a restaurant or sits down at Freedom Hall to watch the University of Louisville play UCLA are of “Mary T.!”

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When Mary T. explains why she likes to go back to her old Kentucky home, she refers to a “home” that goes beyond the lovely two-story brick house to include her church that’s just around the corner, her grade school that’s connected to the church but extends for acres on the other side of her back fence, the Sacred Heart Academy a few blocks away where she attended prep school, the pool that has since been named for her . . . And her family extends to include all of the people who make up that community.

For example, Mary T. had lunch Friday with Mary Tierney, Dorsey’s older sister, who is related to race driver Danny Sullivan, whose family lives a few doors down from the Meaghers. Mary T. says people are always thinking that she’s related to Danny Sullivan because the Tierneys are, and people are always thinking that Dorsey is one of her sisters.

Meagher, who lived with a family in Mission Viejo while she trained with Mark Schubert and who lived in Berkeley while she swam and studied at Cal, says she loves California and had some great times there. “But I never felt the same sense of community that we have back home,” she said.

After reigning as a world record-holder for almost nine years, Mary T. is still uncomfortable about signing autographs. She says that David Robinson feels the same way and feels sorry for him because, at his height, he can never hide and he has to sign a lot more. But she’s perfectly at ease hugging and kissing Sister Louise Marie, the principal at Sacred Heart.

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When she stopped by Sacred Heart Academy last Friday to drop off her senior thesis--she had promised to do that after using the junior class for a survey showing that extra-curricular activities go hand-in-hand with good grades--she got a heroine’s welcome.

The women in the front office were thrilled to read about her award. One had even been up early enough that morning to see her on the morning show. They always knew she was the best. And her physical education teacher and former field hockey coach, Miss Bunny Daugherty, was jumping up and down in her excitement over the award and the prospect of more Olympic competition.

Miss Daugherty insisted that she come upstairs immediately and speak to the basketball team, which just doesn’t have Mary T.'s kind of incentive and discipline.

As she walked toward the gym to speak to the girls, Meagher tried to say that maybe she wasn’t the best authority on incentive and discipline at the moment, but Miss Daugherty was hearing none of it.

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On the bulletin board outside the gym was a newspaper clipping about the award.

Before she left, Meagher told the staff that she’d be home for a few months, swimming early in the morning and late in the afternoon, working as a volunteer teacher’s aide at the grade school some mornings to get some use out of that degree in child development, but otherwise available.

“Just give me a call if I can do anything at all for you,” Mary T. said as she left them smiling like a bunch of proud parents.

Driving away from the campus, which was a live-in convent when her oldest sister was there, Mary T. admitted that it’s difficult trying to be, at all times, what people expect her to be. If she stops smiling, she sends people into a panic.

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And it’s the same way in the pool. She rarely, very rarely, loses a race, and when she does, she has a lot of explaining to do. She even had to apologize in ’84 when she won gold medals in both butterfly events but missed her own world records.

Well, not exactly apologize. But she did have to keep answering questions about what was wrong when she won the gold in the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 59.26 seconds, not beating her world record of 57.93, and she won the 200 in 2 minutes 6.90 seconds, not beating her world record of 2:05.96.

At one point in ’84 she said: “Every time I get in the water, I feel like there are a hundred eyes in the underwater windows trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong.”

That, even though then-U.S. Coach Don Gambril was saying: “She has an absolutely classic stroke.”

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Her stroke is not the problem. Staying on top for eight years becomes a question of staying physically and mentally in peak condition for eight years. Very tough.

After completing her eligibility at Cal at the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. finals last March, Mary T. took five months off, trying to avoid burnout. She has been back in the water since the end of August, and she’s still playing what she considers a game of catch-up.

She said: “I lost a lot of strength, gained weight, lost muscle tone. I’ve only been back doing weights for about two weeks, but now it seems to be coming back pretty fast.

“My main problem is getting motivated. That’s why people like Dorsey and my coach, Monty, are so important.”

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Monty Hopkins knows that his role now is to keep her going, offer encouragement. “Mary T. has had some great coaches along the way,” he said. “She had the coaches that she needed at the different stages.”

She has worked with Dennis Pursley at Lakeside, and she even followed him to Cincinnati for a while. She worked with Bill Peak at Lakeside. Her coach at Cal was Karen Moe-Thornton. And she took a year to go and work with Schubert. But she has confidence in Monty Hopkins now.

“I’m trying to tell myself that this should be fun,” she said. “Of course I want to win at the Olympics, but I’m not putting a great pressure on myself to better my world records. The way I look at it, world records would be icing on the cake.”

If she is going to lower her records, she thinks it is more likely to happen at the U.S. Olympic trials at the very fast pool at the University of Texas, while she still has good food and no jet lag, than in Seoul where there will be so many variables.

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But even if records are not meant to be, a couple of gold medals, probably a third as a member of the medley relay team, are worth a couple of more months of two-a-day workouts. And now that there is training money available for the elite athletes, as well as travel expenses and appearance fees for the very best to appear in some international meets, Mary T. is not even sure that she’ll retire after the ’88 Games.

“I’m single and I haven’t started teaching yet, so if my world records stand up, I might have some really nice opportunities to keep swimming for a little while longer,” she said. “I’d have to keep in shape so I could be competitive. But I don’t think I would ever again put myself in a position to have to train hard.”


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