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

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."

Missing school for two weeks to attend the U.S. nationals in March was time well spent. Babashoff placed second in the 1,500- and 800-meter freestyle races and fifth in the 400-meter freestyle.

She finished behind Janet Evans, holder of three world records, in all three events. Evans, a 17-year-old junior at El Dorado High School, and Babashoff are friends.

"I've known her for a long time," Babashoff said. "We were friends then, and we're still friends now.

"I think it's great that Janet's doing that good, and I don't have any hostile feelings. I just know every swimmer wishes she could do as good."

But Babashoff has won her share of awards too. She has been voted most valuable swimmer of the Sunset League for the last three seasons and last year won Fountain Valley High's Athletic Coronet award, which is the highest recognition the school can bestow on a student for achievement or service.

Babashoff will attend the University of Miami in the fall. She said she was looking for a college with an excellent swimming program, exceptional academics and fun, motivated people.

"I realize swimming is not going to be forever, and I need something to fall back on," she said, adding that she will pursue a degree in political science and possibly law.

As for her greatest achievement to date, Babashoff cited participating in the August, 1986, World Games in Madrid, where she won a bronze medal in the 800-meter freestyle.

But the most exciting event for Babashoff happened much closer to home. Last March, at the Southern California Invitational in Cerritos, she swam in the same meet with one of her siblings for the first time. Jack was returning to competitive swimming at the age of 32 after a 10-year absence.

"It (the meet) was weird because I'm closer to Jack than I am rooting for just a fellow swimmer," Debbie said. "Cheering for him to make his national cut (qualifying time) means so much more to me than just cheering for a friend."

Despite Debbie's exhorting, Jack failed to meet the time standard, but a week later, in the Deck Enter meet at the Marguerite Recreation Center in Mission Viejo, he accomplished his goal. Debbie was there, once again, to cheer him on.

Debbie does miss some of the activities of her classmates, and she may not even be able to attend her graduation ceremonies in June because of meets.

Though she may punish her body each day with training, she usually takes a one-month break during the summer to hit the beach. This summer, however, that break will have to wait as she trains for the Olympic team trials.

"If all goes well and I make the Olympics, I should get a break after time trials or maybe have to wait until after the Olympics," she said.

She is grateful for the free time to be with her friends, who are very supportive. "They encourage me and understand how I can't always go out, and they're always there for me," she said.

When she does have free time, Babashoff can be found near the sun, sand and sea. "I love to body-surf," she said. "I could stay in for at least five hours and just have fun. I always do something to stay in shape--either bicycle, run or my favorite, body surfing."

Babashoff is training in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events for the Olympic team trials, which will be held in Houston in August.

She tries to pay homage to her hero, Clint Eastwood, by remaining calm through everything she does--something Debbie says helps her handle her strenuous schedule.

Come this September in Seoul, this attitude could just help to make her day.

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