Legendary Shirley Babashoff, Gold Medalist Olympic swimmer, spoke out against something during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Today we call that “thing” doping.
I was invited as a reporter to an event in Mission Viejo several years ago. Babashoff was the guest speaker. I noticed how generous Babashoff was with her time answering questions, letting attendees try on her Olympic medals and snap selfies with her. Her sense of humor, outspoken and down-to-earth answers were refreshing.
Babashoff is recognized as one of the all-time great U.S. women swimmers. She won gold at the ’72 Munich Olympics, but unfortunately, she competed against the East German women’s team in Montreal in ’76. Babashoff went public with her story in her 2016 book, “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.”
At the event, she spoke about life after her Olympic career. When she was a swimmer, the Amateur Athletic Union, which governed swimming among other sports, kept everyone on amateur status. She said she made a cotton commercial for Arena after representing the United States at the Olympics. When she wanted to swim with US Masters (where swimmers ages 18 and compete and train — including a novice like me) she was told no — she wasn’t eligible.
She coached and taught swimming for 10 years to triathletes and children. She said had a lot of fun, “But I needed a job with benefits like health insurance, so I took a job with the U.S. Post Office as a letter carrier. I’m in Southern California on the beach and I can hear the waves crash while I’m outside at work.” Her life focused on raising her son and centered around her role as a mom.
Babashoff was asked if she swam now, and she said, “Yes, but I don’t get my hair wet.”
THE EARLY YEARSIN CALIFORNIA:
“We moved from pool to pool and I swam on lots of teams.”
At age eight, she took lessons at Cerritos College, not far from their house in Norwalk before switching to the Norwalk High School pool for Red Cross lessons and her first race. At nine years old, she and her older brother Jack joined the Buena Park Splashers. At 11, Shirley joined a team with both brothers Jack and Bill in El Monte. Jill Sterkel (who would be on her future Olympic gold medal relay team) was on the El Monte team and the coach was the infamous Don La Mont.
By age 13, they swam on a team at Golden West College in Huntington Beach called Phillips 66, sponsored by the oil company, and she swam with one of the two most influential coaches she’d have—Ralph “Flip” Darr.
“In California, where the sun shines almost all year long, we could find a meet practically anywhere. We went to meets in San Diego, Redlands, Los Angeles, Apple Valley, Lakewood Buena Park and many other cities.”
Babashoff said the weekends going to swim meets were her life. She has great memories of going out of town, playing cards and clackers with other swimmers in between races. She said she remembers going to Indio for a meet, and her family drove all the way there and back in one day because they couldn’t afford money to stay in a motel.
“I loved going to those swim meets. There were hundreds of kids at them. I saw my friends from my own team and made new friends from other teams. I got to see my competition from a wider group of girls—not just from my own club, but from other cubs that were the ones to beat.” (p. 31 “Making Waves”)
MISSION VIEJO NADADORES AND MARK SCHUBERT:
In 1971, her mom moved them to Fountain Valley which was next to Huntington Beach. Flip Darr retired and she had to find another team. She said there were only two choices that made sense at her level. She could train at the Belmont Plaza in Long Beach or “I could go with the new guy in Mission Viejo—Mark Schubert.”
She said, “I didn’t even know where Mission Viejo was, which was 30 miles away. Back then you could drive 30 miles in 30 minutes.
“We heard all these horror stories of Schubert’s workouts of 15,000 yards a day and more. I went with a couple friends from our team to try it out and it was 8,000 to 9,000 yards, similar to what we were used to doing. After a couple days, I told Mark that we’d decided to join the team. The next day practice was 15,000 yards.
“It was a way of life. Practice before school, classes, practice at the high school and then back to Mission Viejo. I had three practices a day.”
ENCOUNTERS WITH THE EAST GERMAN WOMEN:
Babashoff talked about her first big meet after joining the Mission Viejo Nadadores. “My first FINA World Championships I felt stronger, I was so excited and full of myself. We were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia at the pool to warm up and the doors were all locked. They said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ That was strange because all the nations warmed up together. But they wouldn’t let us in when East Germans were there. I knew then something was up. Super shocking to see the women. They were huge. I’d never heard of steroids, it was so foreign to me. I was very naive.”
She said that from ’72 to ’76, Schubert had to deal with the East Germans saying, “New suits, high altitude training, etc. They never said, oh we’re taking steroids. We beat them sometimes. They did testing back then, but on testing-day, the East Germans didn’t show up (if they knew they wouldn’t pass) because they had a runny nose.” She said one difference today is random testing and the athlete’s whereabouts are known every day.
Schubert was hosting the event I attended and was asked to describe the ’76 US Olympic trials. He said Babashoff had “the best meet that had ever been swum.” In Belmont at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she won the 100, 200, 400, 800 free and the 200 and 400 IM. She won them all.
1976 MONTREAL OLYMPICS:
Babashoff recalled seeing President Gerald Ford for the second time in a couple months. They were in Pittsburg which was a staging area for the US athletes before they left for the Games. After he spoke at the Pittsburg Air Force Base where the athletes joined him on stage, he shook hands with all the athletes. Then he asked, “Where is Shirley Babashoff?” She said it was surreal to hear the President of the United States ask for her.
“Shirley,” President Ford said, “It’s so good to see you again.” He asked her how many events she was going to swim and he said, “Ah, just like that guy Jack Spitz.”
It was on their first trip to the aquatics venue in Montreal when she first heard and saw the East Germans at the ’76 Olympics. She said they were changing in the locker room, and heard low masculine voices. They all screamed because they thought men were in the locker room. Later they saw them with their muscles, broad shoulders and thunder thighs bigger than ever before.
The backlash in the media against Babashoff began when she told the truth about what she was seeing. From her book (p. 137), she explained the scene on her way to the team bus with the media asking questions with lights flashing, and microphones in their faces:
“Shirley, Shirley! What do you think of the East German team?”
“What can you tell us about the East German team?”
The questions were all redundant and overlapping. But I stopped for a moment and said into one of the reporters’ microphones, “Well except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine.”
I saw some eyes widen and a couple of jaws drop. The reporters then fired off a couple of follow-up questions, which I answered basically the same way. Then I got on the bus and went back to the village to have dinner with my teammates.
Jim Montrella, Olympic swim coach who was sitting near me in the audience at this event, said he wished that USA Swimming back in the 1970s had coached or better prepared their athletes for talking to the media. He apologized and said he felt they had let Babashoff down as her coaches of the Olympic Team. The backlash she received for speaking to the media was overwhelming.
Babashoff thanked Montrella but said she was proud of what she said. “It was the truth.” She said she has a sister 13 years younger and her sister said they watched a video on how to talk to the press and that they used Shirley as an example of how not to do it.
She said it was so obvious that the East German’s were doping and everyone ignored it. She worked so hard and lost because of their cheating.
“I’m still bitter about it now,” she said. The media called her “Surly Shirley” but her teammates supported her for being outspoken about the East German team. She was the only one who spoke out about it at the time.
She said she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I learned to swim at eight years old and seven years later, I was breaking World records and swimming in the Olympics. ‘Is that the same Olympics on TV?’ I remember asking my mom after making the U.S. Olympic team in 1972.”
VIDEO OF THE 4 x 100 FREE RELAY WHERE THE US WOMEN’S TEAM WON GOLD AT THE 1976 OLYMPICS — beating the East Germans:
At the ’76 Olympics, Babashoff won four silver medals and the relay team of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Babashoff won the gold.
“When I’m at work and tell my co-workers that I’ve been to Morocco, Japan, Yugoslavia, etc. they think I’m lying. I loved to compete. I loved to travel. Going on all the trips, even to go on an airplane was amazing. Our family didn’t have money and that wasn’t something we got to do.”
THE RECORD BOOKS:
Babashoff said she’d like to get the records corrected for the 1976 Olympics. “The East German women swimmers sued their own country. The doping has been proven, they’ve admitted it. They didn’t have swim coaches, they had scientists and doctors. They couldn’t swim breaststroke correctly, but they were big and strong.”
The Olympic Committee told her no because it had been longer than eight years. She said the Berlin Wall didn’t come down for 13 years later in 1989, so she didn’t think the eight-year rule should apply.
“A lot of women deserve medals,” she said. “There were women who got fifth or sixth who had two or three East Germans beat them. These women are someone’s grandmothers now, and wouldn’t it be nice for them to finally get the medals they earned and share this with their families?”
The same year her book was published, a documentary came out about the East German state-sponsored doping program called “The Last Gold.”
“Weird how things happen,” Babashoff said. “I decided to work on a book 40 years later, it comes out along with a documentary about the East German’s, and then there’s controversy about Russian doping in the 2016 Olympics. It’s coincidental.”
She was asked if her son who is now grown and married ever swam. She said she tried to teach him when he was young and he wasn’t interested and wouldn’t swim for her. She recalled the time she was with him at Mission Bay in San Diego. She watched him swim like Michael Phelps.
I asked him, “What are you doing?” “Swimming,“ he answered. “Yes, but you’re really swimming. I’ve never seen you swim like this before.” He answered her, “I was afraid you’d put me on a swim team.” “Like I’d drop him off with Schubert,” she said laughing.
Most of her mail customers don’t know who she is or that she’s an Olympic star. She did, however, have a connection with the co-author of her book Chris Epstein through her route. She heard his name and recalled having an Epstein on her mail route. She asked Mrs. Epstein if she knew Chris. Mrs. Epstein said, “That’s my baby.” Another coincidence, Babashoff explained, “It turns out that his mom, who was my customer, had been at the 1976 Olympics, too.”
Babashoff swam briefly at UCLA, but the weight trainer gave her flashbacks of the East Germans, she said. The trainer worked them out so hard their legs were jello before they got into the pool. It wasn’t how she wanted to train and Shirley said, “I just had enough.” That’s when she officially retired.
Today, she still loves to travel and has a motorhome and travels throughout the country. She’s been to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and enjoys the time outside on her own.
About the ’72 and ’76 Olympics: “Everyone knew East Germans were doping but back then there was no way to prove it.” Babashoff says if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t change a thing.
If you haven’t read “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program” here’s a link to Amazon to purchase Shirley Babashoff’s courageous life story:
What are your thoughts about Shirley Babashoff being outspoken about what she saw happening with the East German swimmers and the media turning against her?
“We saw people’s heads blown off, were shot at, and saw bombs planted on bridges.” Part of a group of young swimmers representing the United States, Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno travelled to Chile in September 1973. Of her travel trip, Kirkpatrick-Reno said, “We all came home with PTSD.”
The swimmers were led by a young coach from Lakewood Aquatics in Southern California named Jim Montrella. They found themselves in the thick of the coup led by Augusto Pinochet that ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende.
“The trip to Peru and then Chile during a coup was a stand-alone event 47 years ago,” Montrella said. “The team was selected from the National Swimming Championships held in Louisville, Ky. Three teams were selected to travel to South America while the first and second-place finishers went on to the World Championships in Belgrade.”
Montrella’s group included eight swimmers, plus chaperone and assistant coach Jill Griese from Ohio. The swimmers were Nancy Kirkpatrick, Michelle Mercer, Anne Brodell, Sandi Johnson, Tom Szuba, Tim McDonnell, Steve Tallman and future Olympic gold medalist Mike Bruner.
Kirkpatrick-Reno was a promising 16-year-old swimmer from the Santa Clara Swim Club who trained with George Haines. “It was a post-Olympic year and a lot of us were hopefuls for the 1976 Olympic Team,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “We were coming in third and fourth places and moving up to the top of the ladder. It was before Title IX and we were a lot younger then.”
“The trip was sponsored by the United States Information Services; it went through the State Department,” Montrella said. “It was a People to People-type program to expose U.S. swimmers and athletes to different areas in Latin America.” Other sponsors were the Amateur Athletic Union and Phillips 66.
The trip began without incident in Lima, Peru. Over the first few days, the coaches and swimmers were treated like royalty. Prelims were held in the morning with the Peruvian swimmers. Then Montrella gave coaches’ clinics with his swimmers demonstrating. In the evenings they held finals.
“During the time in Lima, we had someone from the State Department taking us from the hotel to the pool. There was a female TV reporter who was with us and acted as an interpreter,” explained Montrella. “When we told the people in Lima we were headed to Santiago, they encouraged us not to go to because in their own words, they knew there was going to be a coup d’etat and we’d be at risk.”
Montrella said he talked to the ambassador or an assistant to the ambassador in Lima. He was told that it would be fine and that it was under control.
“From Lima we went to Santiago. There was a gentleman there from Washington D.C. who was in the Peace Corps and was coaching the Chilean National Team, Mark Lautman. We were supposed to do the same thing we did in Peru, competition and clinics.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno recalled her first days in Santiago:
“When we first arrived, we had a formal dinner with the Ambassador to Chile. We were told, ‘We’ve been having strikes, unrest and protests. We don’t want you to stay in the Presidential Hotel in downtown Santiago [which was next to La Moneda, the presidential palace.] We’re going to put you with families instead. Don’t wear USA sweats or uniforms because you would make good political prisoners.’”
Kirkpatrick-Reno stayed with the president of the Chilean Swimming Federation. She said the family was welcoming but poor. The mother had to wait in line for hours for food. Kirkpatrick-Reno needed to get to the pool and the family didn’t have a car. Since the kids in the family were swimmers, she rode on the public bus with them and arrived late at the pool. “Jim was upset I was on the bus,” she said.
“My family didn’t have food and I felt really bad for them. They gave me a small loaf of bread, a couple cold cuts and a hard boiled egg. They had nothing to eat. They took me to my room and there was a portable heater. They didn’t have heat in the rest of the house. I tried to dry my wet towel with it. September in Chile is freezing cold.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno said that another swimmer on the trip, Tom Szuba, lived with a family whose parents worked as dentists. Unlike the family she stayed with, they had plenty of money and food. Szuba told her that he and the swimmer he was staying with would be able to use an extra family car to drive her to and from the pool. “They gave me a bag of food without letting my family know,” she said.
She explained that after a couple days of competition, the team was supposed to leave their host families and gather together and travel to a seaside resort town.
“The Chilean coach Lautman picked up me and I think Tom, Tim, Michelle and Jim. We were heading to meet the rest of the team, but on the way there, military trucks were coming toward us. We watched as people opened their car doors and ran for cover. The coach told us to get down. I fell on the floor in the second seat. Tom fell on top of me to protect me. We heard bullets and saw charges being planted on a bridge. Lautman was driving like crazy against the traffic. Swimmers were all lying on the floor of the car. Lautman was trying to get us out of the area. He didn’t know where to go so he took us back to his apartment.
“On our way to meet up with everyone, the revolution had begun. Lautman had packed to go on the trip with us so he had almost no food in his apartment. He filled up bathtubs and sinks in his apartment with water so at least we’d have that. He had a bowl of fruit that we shared. We were stuck in his apartment for around three days.”
Montrella remembers that time, “We were staying in an apartment building on the 6th or 7th floor and we heard tanks in the street. Next door was the headquarters of a political faction. It was a two or three-story structure. I heard shooting.They absolutely shot up the political headquarters right next to us. It didn’t look like the same building after the tank got through with it.
“People in our building were shooting down at the tank. Right away I moved the kids into the interior of the apartment. We had a bullet come through one of our windows. It ricocheted off the ceiling and down into the interior. Then I got them out of the interior walls and I moved them closer to the windows and made sure all the blinds were closed. That way they didn’t get shot at through the walls or ricocheted off the stone ceilings to the interior.”
Kirkpatrick-Reno remembers them staying on the floor for most of the time and putting mattresses against the walls to protect from stray bullets. According to Montrella, she saved Mercer’s life by pulling her off a bunk bed where bullets came through moments later.
“We were in a 21-story apartment building. We watched them bomb the presidential palace. There were two bomber planes that swooped between the towers and dropped bombs on it. We saw 10 passes,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
“The building shook every time a bomb was dropped. There was a a 24-hour curfew and we couldn’t go outside. Jim kept us in shape by having us run up and down the flights of stairs. But that made us hungry and we had hardly any food. It did get our mind off what was going on, though.”
She said that she and Mercer had candy bars hidden in their swim bags and they’d sneak bites once in a while. Then the boys found out and ate them all. “All we talked about was eating steak,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
After three days, the government lifted the curfew during the day to allow people to buy food and other essentials. At that time the State Department had the swimmers moved further out of town to stay with embassy employees.
“It was kind of shocking once we moved outside of Santiago,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said. “It was a tale of two economies. The local people living there, like the family I stayed with, were poor and had nothing. They moved us to stay with an American woman in a big estate, who worked in the embassy. She had any kind of food you wanted in her freezers. It was sad to see the differences between the locals and Americans working for the State Department.”
“We were told that Kissinger got us a flight out of Santiago,” Montrella said. “We thought the U.S. was going to supply a plane. What happened was we went to location A at the airport, dressed in our uniforms, and sat and sat and sat. Then we went to location B and we sat some more. Finally, we were walked out to a turbo prop plane.”
Montrella said he and Jill tried to stay positive for the swimmers, but when he saw the other passengers, he felt concerned. The plane was filled with passengers who were not Americans–perhaps Eastern Europeans or Soviets. Then the plane took off in the wrong direction.
“I didn’t know if it was by plan or chance, but we were literally flying through the Andes down deep mountain ravines and canyons. We weren’t flying over the Andes. Mountains were on either side of us,” Montrella said. “We landed in Buenos Aires. They offloaded everybody and we were in the furthest concourse away from everyone. All the Eastern Europeans walked away and they kept us at the end of the concourse.”
When the team was at the airport, Montrella spotted men in uniform 30 yards away. He told Jill to stay with the swimmers and he’d try to find out what was happening. The uniformed men told him, “You know why you were going through the Andes? Fighter pilots out of Argentina wanted to kill the Russians.” To this day, Montrella doesn’t know if this was fact or rumor.
“Theoretically we could have been shot out of the sky. So we were hiding in the mountains rather than going over them,” Montrella said.
Montrella, Jill and the swimmers were eventually flown to Miami where everyone went their separate ways. Montrella said he remembers being debriefed before heading to an ASCA clinic in Chicago. It wasn’t until the team landed in the U.S. that the kids were able to call their parents.
Kirkpatrick-Reno said her parents had gone to the San Francisco airport on the day she was supposed to return. That was the first time they learned something was wrong. They were told by the airline employees that no planes were leaving Chile, that the airport had been bombed along with the communication towers.
Her dad called the State Department, congressmen, assemblymen as well as the press. When she arrived home after 50 hours of travel, she was met by a crowd of press. She said she was surprised that nobody from the government or AAU ever reached out to them with a letter or phone call.
“I don’t remember who told us to stay with families, rather than the hotel by the Presidential Palace, and not to wear our uniforms. But they must have known something was going on. In hindsight they must have thought it would look funny if we didn’t come,” Kirkpatrick-Reno said.
Montrella wasn’t sure if the U.S. government thought they’d be okay, or if they were considered expendable. He was very upset and angry at having been put in the middle of a coup if the government was aware. “My total concern was for the kids’ safety. I felt responsible for the kids and also I knew their coaches personally and professionally,” he added.
In a lighter tone Montrella said, “We had t-shirts made up later and mailed them to the swimmers that said Chilean Coup Crew 1973. I still have my shirt.”
A version of this story first appeared in SwimSwam Magazine’s Spring 2021 Issue. To subscribe to SwimSwam, order back issues or access them digitally, click HERE.
Jim Montrella’s legendary coaching career includes becoming an NCAA-winning Ohio State Women’s Swimming and US Olympic coach. Montrella also produced the first commercially sold hand paddles.
Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno was one of the first female swimmers to be awarded a college scholarship under Title IX. She is the head coach of Conejo Valley Multisport Masters and was USMS Coach of the Year in 2009.
Photos courtesy of Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno.
I wrote this story about the Chilean Coup Crew of 1973 for the Spring 2021 Issue of SwimSwam Magazine. I had never heard of this event until a swim coach mentioned it to me and said I should talk to legendary swim coach Jim Montrella. I had interviewed Montrella several times before, so that was an easy call. He’s the type of person who is approachable and happy to help in spite of his iconic reputation. You can read another story I wrote about him HERE. After hearing the word coup daily in the news the past few weeks, I felt this story was worth another look.
After speaking to Montrella, he referred me to one of the teen swimmers at the time, Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno, who is now a swim coach.
My daughter diving in a competition with her club team at the East LA City College pool.
I Am Woman Hear Me Roar or You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, Part II
Isn’t it strange that women swimmers a few decades ago ended their swim careers in their teens, while it’s not uncommon to have women compete in their 20s and 30s today?
I was talking to Bonnie Adair — a former swimmer who held 35 National Age Group records during her career — including the 50-meter free for 8-and-unders that stood for 29 years. She quit swimming at age 19. Contrast that to say Olympian gold medalists Dara Torres, who swam in her fifth Olympics at age 41, Natalie Coughlin, still competing at 32, or Janet Evans who swam in the 2012 Olympic Trials at age 40.
What has changed so much in swimming since the 1970s that gives women the ability to still compete throughout their 20s and beyond?
I interviewed Bonnie Adair, the head coach of Loyola Marymount in LA, for another writing project I’m undertaking. She began swimming at age five and was an amazing and gifted swimmer. She said after she graduated high school she wanted to train for her third Olympic Trials. She lived at home with mom and dad and commuted to college — so she could still swim with her club team, Lakewood Aquatics coached by the legendary Jim Montrella.
She noticed one day that there were no guys in her training group. They had all gone to swim on scholarship at colleges such as UCLA and USC. The girls did not. Why not, you ask? Because they didn’t have college swim teams for women!
Isn’t that stunning? My daughter, age 18, is swimming right now — this very minute — at a D1, PAC 12 school (Go Utes!). It was always her dream — since she was five years old — to swim in college and go to the Olympic Trials. She took it for granted that she had the opportunity, and that if she worked really hard, she could possibly achieve those dreams. She’s made the college dream come true and she has a couple seconds to drop for Olympic Trials 2016.
I was shocked and stunned to realize that these dreams were not remotely possible for women just a few years older than me! Their swim careers were cut short if they wanted to have a college experience where they lived on campus and were away from home. It was difficult or nearly impossible to keep competing with a club team for many years past high school.
When I was in high school, we had no pool or high school swim team, boys or girls. I remember we had girls track and field and tennis. Cheerleading was the big thing for girls to do. Cheer tryouts was one of the horrors of my teen life, a total embarrassment that makes me cringe remembering being put on exhibition in front of the entire student body.
We didn’t have girls basketball or golf and I played golf. Since I didn’t make the cheerleading squad, I tried out for the boys golf team with my lifelong friend and fellow golfer Christy.We were allowed to go to all the practices with the guys. We were the last group out on the course— a twosome.We were never included in any of the tournaments or competitions. I honestly don’t know if we were that much worse than the boys — or if it was because we were girls.
I wrote about how far along we’ve come from the time my parents told me I was going to college to get my MRS degree and when girls were required to take home ec in high school in “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar, or You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” Our young women take all of this for granted. They are truly lucky and blessed to be alive today in the United States.
Of course, the main reason there are women’s collegiate sports today and weren’t say before 1972 can be summed up as Title IX — which has its benefits and its unintended consequences. This will be discussed on another day.
What high school and college sports did you participate in? Were there girls teams for all the boys sports?