Mary T. Meagher Was Way Before Her Time

mary-t-meagher-1981
Mary T. Meagher in 1981. Photo Courtesy: Tony Duffy

By Alec Scott, Swimming World College Intern

In light of Katie Ledecky’s recent jaw-dropping performances, I decided to write about the last athlete to have that kind of success and swim times that transcend their era in the sport. Mary T. Meagher exuded a level of dominance and untouchable record-breaking swims in her time that has been matched only by Ledecky. At the age of 14, “Madame Butterfly” set a world record in the 200 meter butterfly with a 2:07.01—she would go on to hold the world record in the event for 21 years until Australian Susie O’Neill broke it in the year 2000. That time still stands as 13-14 the national age group record 37 years later.

Meagher swam for Lakeside swim team in Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati Marlins for Coach Dennis Pursley. She swam alongside fellow Olympians Tori Trees, Lisa Buese and Glenn Mills. During my time swimming for Coach Pursley at Alabama he often alluded to the fabled training habits of Mary T. Suggesting on more than one occasion that she could swim a 3000 meter butterfly for time faster than most of us could do it freestyle. And I believe it, Coach Pursley is not the type to pull your leg about the way the one of the best athletes ever trained.

Meagher’s performance at the 1981 U.S. National Championships is one of the greatest in the history of sport. Her time of 57.93 in the 100 meter butterfly lowered the world record by over a second and stood for 18 years until Jenny Thompson was able to eclipse it in 1999. Meagher’s 200 meter butterfly at those same championships is arguably the most dominant in in the history of swimming. Her time of 2:05.96 stood as the world record for 19 years and is still a world class time by today’s standards. Meagher would have easily qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team with a 2:05.96 and would have just missed out on a medal in Rio.

It’s hard to imagine this swim was at the National Championships. There is no one else in the frame with Meagher. Her dominance in that era was without precedent and her impact is still felt in the sport today. Both of her 1981 world records in the butterfly events still stand as the 15-16 national age group records today. She was a generational talent not unlike Ledecky or Michael Phelps.

Those 1981 swims would be Meagher’s best of her career. Despite not being at her absolute best Meagher still dominated the butterfly events at the international level through 1985 including winning gold in both the 100 and 200 meter butterfly at the Los Angeles Olympic games in 1984. Meagher went on to swim for the University of California, Berkeley where she was NCAA swimmer of the year twice. In 1988, Meagher qualified for her third Olympic team in the 200 meter butterfly and went on to win a bronze medal at the games in Seoul, South Korea.

Meagher changed the face of swimming forever. Considering how her records stood the test of time it is tough to argue against her as the best butterflier the sport has ever seen. For her time her unparalleled dominance was similar to that we see from Ledecky today. Meagher took butterfly to a completely different stratosphere in the same the way Ledecky has with distance swimming today.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

44 comments

  1. avatar
    Jim C

    MT’s first WR in the 200 fly was actually set earlier in the summer of 1979 with a 2:09.77 at the Pan Am Games. She also broke that record with a 2:08.41 in the prelims of the 1979 Nationals in Ft. Lauderdale before lowering it again in finals with the 2:07.01 cited in the article.

    • avatar
      Alec Scott

      Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. avatar
    YY

    Amazing swimmer. Great talent. But the comparison with Katie Ledecky is not quite accurate. Mary T Meagher was 17 when she stopped to progress and in a few years her dominance faded. There is completely different picture with Ledecky: she was already dominant at 15 (4sec advantage at final race in London) and still pushing limits at 19 at much wider variety of disciplines well ahead of other contenders. There is no rason to believe that someone can seriously challenge Katie in the next four years if she stays healthy. Missy Franklin with her 200BK record (that is already 4 years old) at 17 will be more appropriate candidate for comparison.

    • avatar
      Alec Scott

      World record holder for 19 years! I don’t think the argument she peaked early is relevant.

      The best women in America in 2016 could not beat her time from 1981 with no goggles–thats unbelievable. To me that 200 butterfly world record is as iconic as Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis’ records on the track.

      • avatar
        YY

        There was no reason to explain the greatness of Mary T Meagher by starting and finishing the article with the references to Katie Ledecky. Neither the story of Mary T Meagher needs that nor the comparison is accurate.

    • avatar
      N P

      If Missy’s 200 back WR stands for 20 years and would still make the U.S. Olympic team 35 years later, then you can make that “better” comparison. Meagher did not improve after ’81, and yet she was still untouchable at the LA Olympics, and succeeded in winning a medal at the Olympics while adding 5 seconds; even then, she was only beaten my two East German women. Had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow Games, she would in all probability have been the only woman to defend a 200 butterfly title.

      • avatar
        YY

        I don’t see any good purpose of comparing swimmers from different generations. Missy was mentioned only because she also peaked at 17 and her record hasn’t been approached by anybody for 4 years allready and has a very good chance to survive at next OG. The longevity of records says not only about superiority of particular swimmer but also can indicate a poorly developed competition. Men’s records do not live that long.
        I didn’t have a chance to follow Mary T and therefore believe those who had her a hero that she was really great.

      • avatar
        Ellen

        Recovery with training was not understood in the 80s. If she had today’s training, I am sure Mary T would have progressed even more after 81.

  3. Brad Horner

    She did those times with baggy suit and the flat start and pop up off turns of the day. Incredible.

    • Peter Healy

      And early in her career, no goggles. She set one of those records at Schroeder if I recall.

    • Brad Horner

      Both of her best swims were at Schroeder on 1981.

      • avatar
        Steve Betts

        And Schroeder is still a fast pool!

    • Peter Healy

      To think they almost bulldozed that pool.

  4. Tony MacGuinness

    Not much faster wearing the expensive suits of today.

  5. Jane Risher

    She was one of my childhood Heroes!

  6. avatar
    GBear

    I swam with her in college. She could descend 10x100s fly to a 53 in practice. We tease her that she should be the blue line on the TV at OTs.

  7. Doreen Lemke

    I was 17 in 1981. It was all about Mary T

  8. Charlene Tallen

    No goggles, no fast suit, short underwater work! Amazing!

  9. avatar
    cynthia

    Forget Tracey Caulkins, the times didn’t hold as long but Caulkins could placed at the nationals in all 4 strokes, few swimmers can do that..

    • avatar
      Alec Scott

      Caulkins is one of the best ever! I couldn’t agree more.

      My only point is how before her time Mary T. was…her records were untouchable for decades.

  10. Greg McDonald

    So was the great Tracey Wickham – another untouchable!!!!

  11. avatar
    Garth Wilson

    Agree, Mary T was a great swimmer and exciting to watch. My son also swam
    With her on the Marlins. In the 200 Fly her last 50 seemed as fast as her first.
    She certainly deserved the title of “Madam Butterfly” !

  12. Jane Hushon

    Used to look at her times in Results at a glance …then use my basic physics to work out how far behind her I was. A way to keep occupied on the long sets …

  13. Lisa Crowe Hill

    Humble! Great word to describe her. I would watch her swim and be in awe everytime.

  14. Jenn Fellrath

    Mary T was my swimming idol; still is; Met her once told her what her name was.

  15. Paul Peterson

    No tech suit…no goggles…baggy suit…2:05.91…stupid fast!!!…and a humble person..madame butterfly..

  16. Chris Proulx McQuern

    I happened to live in KY during these years. Qualified for the state meet (barely)and got to see her in action. She wasn’t racing for Olympic gold at that meet, obviously, but she won very easily!

    • Wynter Warren

      They had her do a exhibition race at the Mary T Pool during our trip to JO’S there. Attached to her feet a 5 gallon bucket as she swam a 100 fly…. My great Aunt introduced her to me after Mass one Sunday in Louisville…..STAR STRUCK!!!

  17. avatar
    Jane Niehaus

    She was so incredibly gracious and supportive of our boycott of the 1980 Olympics at 15/16–even though she would have won at least two gold medals there (she was a high school classmate–is a fantastic person all around).

  18. mike sr

    she was great

  19. avatar
    Wayne McCauley

    Any one here ever hear of Janet Evans?

    In 1987 Evans set a new world record in the 400-meter freestyle event. This record stood for 18 years until France’s Laure Manaudou broke it in May 2006.

    Evans held the 1,500-meter freestyle record, set in March 1988, through June 2007, when it was broken by American Kate Ziegler with her time of 15:42.54.
    Evans held the world record in the 800-meter freestyle, 8:16:22, that she set in August 1989, until it was broken by Rebecca Adlington of Britain in August 2008. Adlington set the new record with her time of 8:14.10 in winning the race at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Evans’s 800-meter record was one of the longest-standing ones ever in swimming, and it went unbroken through four Olympic Games (1992–2004).

  20. avatar
    T Hill

    Add Tracey Caulkins to the list. Remarkable in all 4 strokes & distances. If not for the boycott’s she would be one of our greatest Olympians ever. American records in all strokes & of course IM’s.
    When Mary T went her 57 and 2:05+ Fly they was a moment of dead silence & disbelief in the crowd, it was surreal moment that I can still see & feel vividly. It is amazing what the human body can do when we don’t limit it with our words/thoughts. A beginners mind.

  21. avatar
    Steve Vigar

    I was Mary’s age group coach in Louisville from 8 until she was 11.
    She could do things then that were unbelievable. Some of the best years of my life coaching her and her teammates.