By Phillip Whitten
May 18. MARY T. Meagher admits to having mixed emotions about Australian Susie O'Neill finally erasing her long-standing world record in the 200 meter butterfly.
"You couldn't ask for a nicer, more deserving person to break your record than Susie," the swimmer, who came to be known as "Madame Butterfly,"' said in a telephone interview from her home in an Atlanta suburb on Wednesday.
"`I really admire her perseverance. She just missed it a few times but she kept working at it and finally did it. But there's a certain sadness that my name is no longer in the record book, she acknowledged.
O'Neill's time of two minutes 5.81 seconds this week at the Australian Olympic Trials sliced 15-hundredths of a second off the oldest world swimming record in the books, which Meagher set on August 13, 1981 as a 16-year-old high school student.
Meagher's record had acquired near-mythic proportions as it withstood every assault over nearly two decades of swimming, surviving even the steroid-aided onslaughts of the East Germans and Chinese.
SHOCKS THE WORLD
That August, Meagher shocked the world with dual world records in the 100 and 200 meter butterfly at the U.S. National Championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. She swam astounding times of 57.93 seconds in the 100 and 2:05.96 in the 200, breaking her own world marks of 59.26 and 2:06.37 set a year earlier. The achievements earned her the Madame Butterfly nickname.
At the time, people called her records "Beamonesque" because they were as far ahead of the rest of the world as Bob Beamon was when he set his amazing long jump record in 1968.
In the 100 meters, for example, with no other swimmer under 59.5 seconds, Meagher had not only cracked the 59-second barrier but entirely skipped 58 seconds to post her record time of 57.93.
As time went on and every challenge was turned away, the records acquired an aura of invincibility.
Last August American Jenny Thompson finally cracked the 100 meter mark, swimming 57.88 at the Pan Pacific Championships held in the Olympic pool in Sydney. No longer were Madame Butterfly's records beyond the reach of mere mortals.
When the 26-year-old O'Neill finally broke the 200-record last Wednesday, it was the culmination of a decade-long quest by the blonde Australian and finally erased Meagher from the record books. So respectful of the standard was O'Neill that she insisted on using the same style swim suit she has worn for four years, spurning the new Speedo hi-tech "fast skin" bodysuit, which is said to create less water resistance than bare human skin.
"Now, no one can say it was the swimsuit that swam 2:05," she said.
The 35-year-old Meagher, who now uses her married name of Mary Plant, lives happily outside Atlanta with her husband, Turner sports executive and Goodwill Games president Michael Plant, and their children, Madeline, 4, and Drew, 2.
REFLECTS ON CAREER
She recalled how she felt in setting the records nearly 19 years ago.
"I was joyful, happy, all those words," she said. "At that point I was still taking my success for granted. I didn't know I would never swim that fast again."
She never swam quite that fast again but still thrived in the pool, winning gold at the 1984 Olympics in the 100 and 200 butterfly and in the medley relay, and taking bronze behind two East Germans at the 1988 Olympics in the 200 butterfly.
The 1988 Olympic result still bothers Meagher, the 10th of 11 children who had a sister also named Mary and so was always identified as Mary T. Meagher.
"I know now they were using drugs, but I really beat myself. I couldn't even go 2:09, which was the winning time, and that was pathetic."
Meagher, at the height of her powers, missed the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the U.S. boycott, but she knew she was young enough to still taste Olympic glory in Los Angeles, unlike many of the older athletes who were deprived of their one shot at Olympic glory.
Looking back, Meagher said she had expected to go even faster than her monumental 2:05 clocking.
"I always felt I could do 2:04. When I did 2:05 I wasn't pushed at all, and the last 25 meters felt real easy. At the finish I thought 'I'm not tired, I could've kept on going.'"