Mary T. Meagher Joins Champion’s Mojo Podcast to Discuss Illustrious Career

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Mary T. Meagher

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This week’s interview: Mary T. Meagher Plant

Mary T. Meagher broke the mold as to how fast a woman could swim butterfly. She broke the world record in the 200 meter fly five times, holding it for 21 years. Thirty-five years after her world record swims, her time would still have made the United States Olympic team. Nicknamed Madam Butterfly, the amazing Mary T. Meagher swam at Cal Berkeley, was a multiple time NCAA Swimmer of the Year, and won multiple national championship titles. Hear her thoughts on looking back on her career and what advice she has for those with their dreams currently postponed.

Below is an abridged Q & A of the interview, conducted by Kelly Palace and Maria Parker, with Mary T. Meagher. You can listen to the full podcast episode #62 at https://championsmojo.com.

Champion’s Mojo: Olympic champion Mel Stewart said that the greatest advice you ever gave him was to be as comfortable swimming butterfly as you were swimming freestyle. Do you think that’s why you were so comfortable with butterfly?

Mary T. Meagher: So it was pretty close, I’m not going to lie. I think it always takes a 90 percent effort to do the stroke correctly; you’re never able to do butterfly at 50 percent. There were times that my shoulder would hurt doing freestyle and I’d start swimming butterfly and my shoulder would no longer hurt. So, for whatever reason, I was pretty comfortable swimming butterfly. I couldn’t swim it all day like I could with freestyle, but I did swim a lot of it and was able to hold a good technique for a longer distance than most people were able to.

Champion’s Mojo: At the 2008 Olympic Trials you were introduced to a long standing ovation. How did you not know that the swimming community felt like this about you? You know, 20 years past your Olympic gold?

Mary T. Meagher: I will never forget that moment. I might even get a little emotional now. It was a very emotional moment for me. I feel like I did a good job moving on to a new life after my swimming career was over. It took some time. It was a tough transition. I always feel for these athletes that, you know, say different things that you can tell that they feel lost. I look back and I was not one of those people that had a huge personality. I’m not going to say I was shy, but I wasn’t hilarious. I didn’t have this witty sense of humor. I wasn’t shy. But I didn’t put myself out there. I was very conservative and wanted to make sure that I always tried to say the right thing. The nice thing. Just trying to be a nice person. I feel like people with my type of personality can feel like they are forgettable and I was fine with that. I’ve never really regretted the way I was. You don’t realize that maybe people like you, that people would remember you as much as they did. I’m not saying that that ovation was for. I think people appreciated that I did try to conduct myself in the utmost way possible, character wise and honesty. I know that probably most of the motivation was out of respect for what I accomplished during my career. I guess between that I never had one of those huge personalities, and also that I had just really moved on with my life. I guess I didn’t realize that people wouldn’t just give me a short ovation and then I’d answer a few questions by the interviewer. I was so touched. I was in tears. And I’m not even sure if they ever got around to asking a question. Well, it’s almost still the same, my life now. I married a guy with a huge personality. He tells great stories and they’re funny and they’re interesting. He’s accomplished a lot in his business career and people want to know how he did it or how he managed to get through different challenges. I always wish that I was more witty here or just said funnier things and contributed more of interest to conversations. I really don’t feel like I do that, but I’m still very comfortable with myself. I have a great group of friends. I am still very Christian. My approval from the big man upstairs, you know, doesn’t come from how many people noticed me when I walk in a room. And I’m very comfortable with that. I think it’s been a great lesson to my kids. They see the dynamics and they see that my husband and I are two very different people. We love each other. We balance each other really well. I think they see that I’m comfortable with myself, even though I’m not the one that’s noticed when I walk in a room. My husband is, but I’m not. And I’m OK with that.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you just not like that attention or did you turn stuff down? Did you ever shy away from stardom?

Mary T. Meagher: I don’t think I turned stuff down. My parents constantly reinforced what was important in life. I didn’t always love it. My parents raised me that, if you’re going to enjoy the benefits of being “famous” there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it. I didn’t always like those responsibilities that came with it. My pet peeve was signing autographs. I’ve never understood that phenomenon. I’ve never understood wanting to get someone else’s autograph. I certainly didn’t understand that someone wanted to interrupt my dinner, my shopping, my trying to leave the pool to get to my hotel room or to have a meal when the whole team was waiting and asked me for an autograph. I’ve tried to do it nicely most of the time. There were times that I probably didn’t do it nicely or that I actually said no. I think my parents made sure my priorities were my character, my faith, and my relationship with God. I think that’s what helped me make the transition to real, normal life afterwards. Even though I did miss some of the fame and even though I miss some of the benefits that came with being recognized and being a successful athlete. The adrenaline rushes. There were years that I thought, is this all there is to life? I was the best in the world at something for ten years and I’ll never experience that again. I just knew I was going to be a great businesswoman. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I knew I’d probably be the world’s best teacher. It was definitely a transition. I didn’t have the right personality to really pursue a career using my success in swimming. I just learned to be happy with the simple things in life. I remember the first time that something small made me feel that way. I don’t know if it was a flower blooming or a nice spring day, but I remember just having this sense of joy and thinking, oh my gosh, it’s so nice to feel this way over something relatively simple and not winning an award or standing on a podium.

Champion’s Mojo: What was the most important value your parents instilled in you?

Mary T. Meagher: I think I have to just reiterate that the most important thing should always be your faith. And then what follows after that is your character, what I see as living your life as a Christian. It has helped me with my marriage. It has helped me with my children. There was a period where we feared our son may have had Tourette’s Syndrome. That’s obviously upsetting. And you right away start wondering, “Will your son ever be able to live a “normal” or mainstream life? But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The big guy upstairs has a plan for him and a plan for us. He may not be successful by the world standards. I believe in capitalism and I believe that it motivates all of us to try to develop our talents to the best, but my son was going to have to find success if he had Tourette’s. His success was going to have to be more about character and finding a way to live with a disability and just continuing to develop his talents the best he could. All of that especially hit home during that whole transition after swimming. It took me years and years. I’m lucky I married the man that I did. He certainly helped me finish that transition. I believe it is what has brought me happiness in imperfect times.

Champion’s Mojo: Can you describe that difficult time transitioning out of your swim career or maybe give any advice to someone listening that’s going through that or will go through that?

Mary T. Meagher: I definitely felt like my body went through withdrawals and I did go through different stress relievers that weren’t healthy. I started having anxiety attacks. I had a counselor I worked with that was fabulous. I wish everybody could have the same experience that I had with this counselor. It’s not that I had to go to her a whole lot, but when I did go to her, she would totally help me change my perspective. That’s what I think counseling is all about. I think my parents had done a fabulous job raising me, but they allowed me to believe things that weren’t true, such as that the world is black and white. I had so much success as a child and young adult with that paradigm, that belief. You think it’s so stupid, like doesn’t everyone know the world is grey? Nope, I was still trying to be successful with black and white. When the counselor kind of realized that that’s how I was looking at the world and introduced the idea that maybe there was a lot of gray. She asked me, “What about all the other swimmers in the pool that train just as long as you who didn’t go to the Olympics. Who didn’t set records. Who didn’t even go to National Championships.” How do you explain your success versus what you know? I was dumbfounded. AI realized that there is some gray in here. There’s not necessarily an equation that if you put in all the right variables guarantees you success. That was heartbreaking to me. So then physically, I think my body went through withdrawals. I didn’t have the stress relief of being able to jump in a pool and train like I used to. So then I’d have these anxiety attacks and stuff. This counselor helped me change my perspective. I did hit rock bottom and, you know, just really wondered how I was going to ever be happy.

Champion’s Mojo: How long was that after you retired from swimming?

Mary T. Meagher: I was twenty-six. I was engaged to a good Catholic boy. I realized I was not ready to get married, even though I thought that’s what I always wanted in life, to get married, have kids. When I realized I was ready to get married to someone on paper who should have been a good match, I realized I needed to do some growing up. I got this counselor and she helped me change some of the perspectives I had, some of the things I learned that maybe I needed to unlearn. We never really talked about faith and love, except that it was important to me. She was the first one to say, “You do understand people have value even if they never accomplish anything really in their life, right?” I guess I had been raised to believe there was something about accomplishing stuff that made you more valuable. I remember the final straw was early in my marriage. I was feeling sorry for myself while I had a fabulous career. My career couldn’t have been timed worse, with the 1980 Olympic Boycott and subsequent boycott of our Olympics in 1984. Even though I won in ‘84, it wasn’t against my biggest competition. I was just one of hundreds of Americans that won medals instead of one of a few. Then I lost in ‘88. So it wasn’t a great timed career. I was feeling sorry for myself. My husband turned around to me and said, “so do you wish that none of it had ever happened.” I didn’t have to think twice. Right away I was like, “ I would do it all over again in a second.” He was like, “well, then get over it.” From that point on I was able to chose to appreciate the good of my career instead of ever feeling like a victim because of things that happened that weren’t ideal.

Champion’s Mojo: What advice do you have to these swimmers out there now?

Mary T. Meagher: My heart goes out to them. I was so lucky because the first boycott, where we didn’t go, I was still so young. I was not one of those kids that from a young age said, I want to go to the Olympics and set that as a goal. I was pretty naive. I feel like that was something that just kind of happened to me. I was a good swimmer from a young age and at 14 had set world records. My coach sat me down and said, “hey, there’s this meet next year called the Olympics. That’s our next goal.” That’s maybe a little bit of an exaggeration but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off. The Olympics were not a goal of mine from a young age so it wasn’t as devastating to me. I was just kind of bummed out. I was competitive. I wanted to race the best in the world. But I just kind of shrugged and was like oh well, I’ll go back to high school, play some field hockey, swim some more. I don’t know if I’ll stay in four more years. Got to think about that because that seems so far away. I think for the younger generation now, the ones still in their teen’s, not much will change. My heart goes out to the older swimmers who are still trying to hang on. Another year is a long time when you are counting the months and maybe even the weeks. I guess my advice would be, once again, keep your priorities. I will hope for you that you’re able to hang on and perform your best and that your best puts you on that Olympic team and sends you to Tokyo and that, you know, you’re able to do well over there. But if that doesn’t happen, there is a big world out there. That’s the other thing is I remember, realizing that there is a big world out there and I can not wait to explore it. Hopefully you can adjust your mindset and realize that,once your career is over, you get to explore that big world. And that it is a fabulous world to explore.

Champion’s Mojo: Has your career become more meaningful to you as these decades go by?

Mary T. Meagher: For sure. I would do it all again, even with the boycotts and losing in ‘88 and all of that.

Champion’s Mojo: When you say lose, did you get a medal?

Mary T. Meagher: I did get a bronze. This is the way I look at it, people hate it when I say this, but it’s a reality that I don’t mind vocalising. It was a very painful part. It still is painful sometimes. I was the favorite going into that 200 fly and even the 100 fly as well. The 200 was the race where I was heavily favored. I think I went 2:11 in that race. I think the winning time was a 2:09. All I had to do was go within three seconds of my best time and I would have won. So even though people say we were beaten by two East Germans, if you throw their medals out because they’ve all admitted to being under the system of steroids, then really, you did win. I just can’t look at it that way. I can’t look at going six seconds slower than my best time and being proud of it, gold medal or not.

Champion’s Mojo: Did you do something wrong?

Mary T. Meagher: I can’t answer that question. I haven’t had one coach or myself give me a theory that I can buy into of what happened. I don’t know if it was physical. If my body was just so tired and burned out. Or if mentally I was burned out. I had graduated from college. I was envious of a lot of my college friends who all had gotten these cool jobs and were doing amazing things. I’m still having to call my dad every couple of months to send me 500 bucks to support my swimming. Mentally, I was ready for my career to get behind me in a lot of ways. I was going to win and then be able to go out on top. I guess that’s maybe a little off topic, but that’s the other thing I’ve learned. I love that saying that life isn’t meant to be lived for you to arrive at your grave with your hair perfectly coiffed and your nails done and your skin in perfect condition. You’re meant to arrive at your grave with your hair blown about and your nails chipped and bruises and scars all over, but with a bottle of champagne in your hands and being able to say, wow, that was a ride. I’m able to live with that loss in ‘88, even though when I see a favorite lose in anything it reminds me of that. Those feelings overcome me. But I’m ok. You live with that cross. So you live with that. And my life is still so fabulous in so many other ways. I can live with that scar. I’m ok that I didn’t win in ‘88. I mean, I’m not ok. I wish I had, but it wasn’t meant to be. You learn more when you lose than when you win. It definitely humbled me and definitely confused me. You know that equation I thought to success was just black and white. I grew from it. And I’ll never regret that. I was making the best decisions I could at the time. In hindsight, I would be doing more yoga in ‘88. More dry land training. I would have trained differently. But that’s all hindsight. I don’t know if that would have helped or not.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you still have that competitive desire and how do you deal with that?

Mary T. Meagher: That’s so funny. I am not competitive anymore. There’s been several times that people have thought that. I really don’t believe I am anymore. I don’t know how I was able to switch that off. I’ll give you an example. I ride the Peloton (stationary bike). We have one in our house. My husband, who was also an Olympian, comes up and tells me what place he got on it. How he was first in his age group. He says that he’ll remove the leaderboard from the screen, but he can’t stand it. He wants to know exactly where he is. It’s my understanding that Michael Phelps is on the Peloton all the time under a pseudonym. Coach Bowman told me that a year ago. I don’t really care. That leaderboard didn’t do anything for me. I feel like I can skew it off the screen and not miss it a bit. It is weird. I noticed it within a few years after my career was over. Playing in a volleyball league. I didn’t care if we won or lost. I was more interested in going to get a beer with my friends afterwards. I will say I was totally competitive when I swam. I was obsessed. I’ve been going through boxes probably like a lot of people during the quarantine. I’m cleaning out stuff. I was going through boxes and found two of my state championship medals. They were silver. And I had written a note on a piece of paper of my time and that they were silver because I got beat by Tori Trees, who is now Tori Smith. She was a backstroker in Louisville and was on the 1984 Olympic team in the 200 meter backstroke. I wrote “lost to Tori Trees by 0.1 seconds.” It just cracked me up. I can’t believe I cared that much about who I lost to. But we were on two different teams at that point so she was a rival for sure. It did make me chuckle. I used to be very competitive and I used to look to see who I wanted to be.

Champion’s Mojo: What would be another trait or a reason that you think you were so successful?

Mary T. Meagher: I was obedient. I was obedient to everything. I did well in school. If you asked me to write a report. Some of the other things I’ve found while cleaning have been my grade school reports. I mean, they were impressive. I was the same with swimming. I never thought to break the rules, never thought to not be there if I was told to be there. And we were told to go 100 percent. I went 100 percent. I was a very obedient kid. It was one of the things that was hard when there was no structure after I finished my swimming career and I had to think for myself. I was so used to having so much success and just doing what other people said to do. It was hard to break that. I had to come up with my own schedule, with my own standard of excellence. Things along those lines think I had to think for myself. When you’re setting world records at 14. When you’re winning national titles at 13. When you’re setting state records at eight. That’s a lot of positive reinforcement. I was getting that in every area. I did well in school. My Catholic Church did use me as an example. I was marched up on the altar a couple different times and just used as an example of making good decisions and that sort of thing. I got a lot of positive affirmation. So then I wanted to even obey more and did better.

Champion’s Mojo: How has that carried over to today for you?

Mary T. Meagher: I was really relieved when I realized, yes, I might do stuff for other people’s approval, but even if I don’t get that approval, it still makes me feel good. I felt lucky that maybe I had been doing it for the wrong reason, but it still brought me joy. Living with the same values and living the best life possible according to those values. It probably helped being married to someone who doesn’t care what others think of him. He’s a good guy with good values, but he has to make tough business decisions that he will oftentimes be publicly crucified for. He’s doing it because he needs to make the best decision for the business and all the employees and stockholders and he handles it so well. He understands why people maybe don’t see it the way he sees it. This is his job. The decision is in the best interest of his job. He’s rubbed off on me.

Champion’s Mojo: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered?

Mary T. Meagher: I did mention that I had been going through some things, my boxes downstairs and stuff. It has just been so fun to relive so many great memories: my years at Cal Berkeley, Elementary school, I found an elementary school yearbook. Of course, most of it was swimming. I don’t know why God chose me to experience all the success, but I appreciate it so much. I found some heartfelt notes that were written to me from people, one of whom was John Naber. I was going to send him this note that he wrote to me after ‘88. But other people too: schoolmates, old boyfriends, teammates and stuff. I was touched. It was affirming to me. I don’t have this huge personality but I’m still significant in people’s lives. I’m just grateful for what I experienced. I hope I arrive at my deathbed and feel that I lived a good, worthy life and just appreciate everyone who was with me for the ride.

Champion’s Mojo: Thank you so much for spending this time with us today.

Mary T. Meagher: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you!

1 comment

  1. Dan Stephenson

    John Naber mentioned in here, near the end. Good interview.