Women’s History Month: When Mary T. Meagher Defied the Imagination During 1981 Butterfly Performances (Video)


Great Races: When Mary T Meagher Defied the Imagination During 1981 Butterfly Performances (Video)

It was the summer of 1981 and Mary T Meagher was a year removed from heartache. By no fault of her own, Meagher missed the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, and the opportunity to showcase her butterfly talent to the world. With the United States boycotting the Olympics in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Meagher was used as a political pawn – an identity known by hundreds of American athletes.

The results from the Moscow Games recognize East Germany’s Caren Metschuck as the champion in the 100 butterfly and her countrywoman Ines Geissler as the gold medalist in the 200 fly. Had Meagher been present at the competition, there is little question she would have stood on the top step of the podium. After all, few athletes in the history of the sport have dominated an event with the force exhibited by Meagher.

Current-day records show Adam Peaty and Katie Ledecky as untouchable athletes in their prime events. While Peaty has achieved unmatched greatness in the 100 breaststroke, Ledecky has unleashed times in the 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle that others can only dream about. During her heyday, the same could be said for Meagher, who was widely recognized as Madame Butterfly.

A year after Meagher was denied an initial Olympic foray, she raced at the United States National Championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Although the stage did not compare to an Olympic platform, what Meagher produced in the Midwest was monumental in stature. The numbers say it all. She went 57.93 in the 100 butterfly and 2:05.96 in the 200 fly.

The video of the races, although grainy and far from today’s full-pool footage, is comical. It’s almost like Meagher was an early peaking age-grouper racing against overmatched opponents, such was the gap she enjoyed over the competition. In a way, Meagher raced alone, her rivals battling for second place even before they climbed the blocks. It was Mary T. vs. the clock.

When Meagher clocked 57.93 for the 100 butterfly, she became the first woman to not only crack the 59-second barrier in the event, but also the 58-second threshold. Meagher sliced 1.33 seconds off her previous world record, an eternity in a sport typically defined by fractions of seconds. Her global standard endured for 18 years, not broken until Jenny Thompson went 57.88 at the 1999 Pan Pacific Championships.

In the 200 butterfly, Meagher was even more magnificent, as she touched the wall in 2:05.96. The record was Meagher’s fifth world mark in the event and defied what was deemed possible. Before Meagher set her first world record in 1979, 2:09.87 was the fastest time in history. Madame Butterfly took the event to a different stratosphere.

Meagher’s final world record in the 200 fly endured even longer than her standard at half the distance, lasting for almost 19 years. It wasn’t until Susie O’Neill went 2:05.81 at the 2000 Australian Olympic Trials that Meagher’s name was erased from the record book. More, her time would have placed fourth at last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Think about that. Forty years after she delivered her epic performance, Meagher would have contended for the podium in a modern-day Olympic race.

Meagher finally got her Olympic opportunity at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she doubled in the 100 fly and 200 fly, and helped the United States to gold in the 400 medley relay. Four years later, she added a bronze medal in the 200 fly at the Seoul Games.

Forever, she will be an iconic figure in the sport.

“I always felt I could do 2:04,” Meagher once said. “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.’”

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1 year ago

And no tech suit!!! Amazing!

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

And no goggles!!

Gregg K.
1 year ago

If Mary T. was transported through time, with modern pools, suits, training technique, nutrition, no doubt she would dominate like she did back then. She was a phenom, much like Katie Ledecky and Janet Evans, and one of my favorite swimmers of all time.

1 year ago

Wow. Much respect. Truly a legend.

Andy C.
1 year ago

Is there any footage of her 100m world record swim from the 1981 Nationals? I’ve never seen that race…

1 year ago

Besides the lack of goggles, modern racing suits, and a modern understanding of nutrition; she’s also not using modern underwaters! And she’s still so fast!(Even dolphin-kicking butterflyers quickly popped up to the surface, back then.) She’s looks like she’s so relaxed, just loping along in her lane. Amazing! I know swimmers, especially in the 60s avoided weight lifting because they were told it would make them “muscle bound”. I wonder if that was still going on with Madame Butterfly’s era? Especially because of being female, I could imagine her being told not to lift weights. But, I don’t know for sure. What a remarkable swimmer!

Terry Watts
1 year ago

I had the amazing honor of training with Mary T while she was getting ready for Seoul. She was the GOAT but never arrogant. Thanks for the memories Mary T and Bill Peak.