PHOENIX – Today marks the 35th anniversary of the USA Hockey team’s defeat of the Russian Hockey team at the 1980 Olympic Games as the miracle on ice. Many believe that this was the greatest underdog Olympic moment in history. We at Swimming World Magazine believe that the greatest upset of all time came four years earlier in the water at the 1976 Olympic Games when four young female swimmers took on their entire East German regime in a last chance to win one gold medal for the United States.
Chuck Warner relived that moment in the January Issue of Swimming World Magazine. We think it is only fitting that we relive the greatest story never told today, on SwimmingWorld.com.
The women’s swimming events at the 1976 Olympic Games began with a six-and-a-half-second whipping by the East Germans over the Americans in the 400 meter medley relay. USA assistant Olympic coach Jim Montrella felt it deeply: ”It was very tough. There were things happening that no one was sure about, no one wanted to talk about and no one wanted to admit to.”
The performance by the women of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in Montreal was arguably the most dominating by any women’s squad in Olympic history. Their rise to the top of the sport had been shockingly abrupt. Not only had they won their first-ever Olympic swimming gold medal in Montreal, but they also had won all but one individual event. Beyond that, they finished first and second in the 100 and 200 freestyle as well as the 100 and 200 backstroke… and 1-2-3 in the 200 butterfly.
Nonetheless, the best all-around swimmer in the world might have been a 19-year old American named Shirley Babashoff. The blonde-haired wonder showed off her range by winning silver medals in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles and the 400 medley relay, and finishing fifth in the 100 freestyle. She had forgone competing in the 400 individual medley, an event she had also won at the U.S. Trials.
During these Olympics, the USA team looked like minor leaguers compared to the Germans—and even to some other countries. There were three events in which they didn’t even qualify a swimmer in the final eight. With a single event remaining—and Babashoff’s performances aside—the USA had won only two individual medals, both bronze.
A DIFFERENCE IN SYSTEMS
On TV, Curt Gowdy quizzed Donna DeVarona: “I want to ask about the amazing East German women.”
She responded by analyzing the differences from the USA team: “Our main problem is that our women are only developed in the club system…our women are just beginning to have college opportunities… the GDR system is a very professional system, and the state pays for that.”
“What have you found about their training program?” asked Gowdy.
“They do high-altitude training in Bulgaria. They go to Leipzig four times a year, where all the coaches come to learn and share techniques…. All their resources are used. It’s very difficult to compete with that.”
The USA women were competing against the most organized system of developing swimmers any country had ever created. And in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the Americans had qualified third in the heats behind the Canadian team and the GDR. The simple addition of their best swims in Montreal indicated that the four GDR girls were about two seconds faster than the four Americans.
While the USA women struggled to get on the award podium, the men were enjoying their most prolific performance in Olympic history. They set 11 world records and took home 12 gold medals. If the American men were so good, how could the U.S. women be so insignificant? How could they only win five individual medals? Was it because they didn’t have an NCAA program?
Colleagues were also suspicious of the quality of coaching that the USA women’s team received from head coach Jack Nelson and his assistants, Montrella and Frank Elm. Their contemporaries steered clear of them as if they were trying to stroll gracefully by a skunk-sprayed spot in the woods.
The world didn’t know a secret. The stink wasn’t in the USA team.
PEYTON VS. ENDER
Leading off the 400 freestyle relay for the East German team was Kornelia Ender. At these Olympics, Ender had already become the first woman to capture four gold medals in a single Games. She had set three world records, including the 100 freestyle (55.65). Kim Peyton, who was America’s fastest 100 swimmer with a best time of 56.81, led off for the Americans. After just 25 meters, Ender had powered out to nearly a body length’s lead.
There had been whispers in Montreal about the consistent monotone, masculine, deep voices of the GDR women. In 1976, the concept of performanceenhancing drugs was in its infancy. But it was widely known that the entire country of East Germany was committed to demonstrating the advantages of a socialistic society through their success in sports. Ender and her teammates had long been treated by the state as missionaries toward that objective.
Ender turned first at 50 meters, while Oregon-native Peyton scrambled through the water, trying to keep up. Peyton followed her coaches’ instructions and swam next to the lane line that separated the two, gaining the benefit of the leader’s wake. She fought desperately to stay at Ender’s knees and finished slightly off her best time with a 56.95, trailing Ender’s 55.79.
BOGLIOLI VS. PRIEMER
On the second leg, the USA’s Wendy Boglioli—a 21-year-old “elder” on the U.S. national team—swam with the same maturity with which she had conducted herself in recent years. She was the only American swimming in one of the few women’s college programs at Monmouth in New Jersey. Her efficient, long strokes resembled those of top swimmers in the world today. The East Germans countered with the Olympic silver medalist in the 100 free, Petra Priemer, who maintained the lead.
Ender, Priemer and their teammates were subject to a covert conspiracy by administrators, coaches and doctors to add to their own athletic ability and resolve by contributing drug-fed power to their muscles. Unbeknownst to them, their training included the advantage of steroid use that decreased recovery time and increased muscle mass and training adaptations.
The American women’s adaptations were left to their own coach’s training design and programs for nutrition and sleep. While lacking the same medical support and talent selection system that the GDR enjoyed, they competed on the merits of their old-fashioned, heartpumping, muscle-pulsating work that stretched and widened capillary beds and fought off screaming lactate build-up.
Boglioli improved nearly two seconds from her Trials time and outsplit Priemer, 55.81 to 56. 16. With 200 meters swum, the Americans trailed by 81-hundredths of a second.
STERKEL VS. POLLACK
Jill Sterkel dove into the water one-half body length behind the GDR’s Andrea Pollack. The 15-year old Californian had swum her best time (57.06) earlier in the competition when she finished seventh in the 100. On the first length, Sterkel swam with a high tempo, common to the many endurance-laden programs that permeated the era. She stayed close to Pollack.
On her second length, Sterkel turned on a thunderous kick that slowed her turnover rate and drove herself to pull even with Pollack.
The crowd noise in the Olympic natatorium was building, with the possibility of witnessing a tale akin to that of David defeating Goliath. …and then Sterkel passed Pollack. Natural outperformed drug enhanced.
The possibility of any girl or any boy in the world finding a way to win despite all manufactured impediments was unfolding on the grandest stage in sports.
At the completion of 300 meters, Jill Sterkel touched in a stunning 55.78—the fastest split of all of the finalists. The Americans had the lead—by 4-tenths of a second, 2:48.54 to 2:48.94—and broadcaster Donna DeVarona screamed, “They have a chance!”
BABASHOFF VS. HEMPEL
Standing on the starting block for the final American leg was Shirley Babashoff. Earlier that evening, the 5-9 Californian had battled the GDR’s Petra Thumer stroke for stroke in the 800 freestyle. Both girls had broken Shirley’s world record by two seconds, but it was Thumer who pulled away slightly on the last length to touch the wall 45-hundredths of a second faster than Babashoff for the victory.
The Olympic swimming events were conducted on seven days over an eight-day period, with a day off between the fifth and sixth days of competition. On that rest day, the U.S. coaches took the women’s relay swimmers to an off-site warm-up pool to work on exchanges. Their extra effort was paying off with two excellent transitions, followed by a near-perfect one from Sterkel to Babashoff.
Babashoff sprung off the block just in front of Claudia Hempel, who earlier in the week had been out touched by the American in the 100 finals by a mere 4-hundredths of a second for fifth place. Yet this time, Hempel was fresh, while Babashoff had raced the 800 free earlier that evening.
A few days earlier, Shirley Babashoff had uttered aloud her instinct that something was awry with her competition. Consequently reporters nicknamed her “Surly Shirley.” Actually, this was one of the greatest athletes in the world expressing the possibility of betrayal by a systematic program of cheating that was destroying the most basic tenet of sport: spirited competition within a consistent set of rules.
In 1998, eight years after East and West Germany reunited to become one democratic nation, Courtroom 700 of Berlin’s state courthouse heard testimony regarding a “state” sports program that operated through the 1970s and 1980s. The effects of a program on thousands of athletes conducted by hundreds of coaches, doctors and administrators were exposed at the hearings.
Several athletes testified that due to the drugs that had been represented to them as vitamins, they were rendered infertile, bore children with birth defects and/or had developed ovarian cysts. Even abortions had been performed in the name of demonstrating the power of what was once lauded as the East German “Miracle Machine.”
Shirley Babashoff’s instincts had been correct, but she had been virtually alone in her willingness to speak out and give voice to her suspicions.
At the final exchange, the American team held a miniscule edge that came from heart-pounding work designed to strengthen cardiac muscle. They showed a will that toughens with practice and permeates one’s soul.
But the Germans were not about to give up. Babashoff had set three American records thus far at the Olympics, narrowly missing two gold medals while surpassing existing world records. But with 85 meters remaining in the race and Hempel charging next to her, one question remained: Would Shirley let Claudia pass?
Babashoff was considered an elder in the USA at this point of her swimming career. She had graduated from high school, and Donna DeVarona was right—there was little in the way of collegiate opportunity for American girls at that time (the infancy of Title IX). Shirley had been to the ’72 Olympics in Munich, where she had won a gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay. But history would attest that in fair competition, Shirley Babashoff might well have left Montreal as America’s “Golden Girl.”
Babashoff stroked madly, taking nearly 60 strokes per length, while Hempel powered through the water with greater efficiency. Shirley’s muscles were tired from the effects of her 800 freestyle battle earlier that evening. With 40 meters remaining, Hempel raced at Shirley’s shoulder. Babashoff’s tempo increased even faster. While her muscles were weak, her resolve was like steel. Shirley Babashoff extended her fingertips to the touch pad, stopping the clock 68-hundredths of a second sooner than Claudia Hempel. She split 56.28 to Hempel’s 56.56, and the American team smashed the GDR’s world record by four full seconds!
VICTORY FOR ALL
DeVarona shouted, “I’ve never been more excited to eat my words!”
Shirley, pumping her fist, shot out of the pool to embrace her teammates. The American girls hugged and leapt for joy, smiling and firing fists in the air. Friends and supporters in the stands as well as those who were watching on television cheered with joyous grins and flooding eyes.
The incredible triumph that the USA women had delivered still serves us all today. They proved to all of us—even their abused East German sisters—that in the sport of swimming, human will and commitment can defeat drugs and systems.
On July 25, 1976—200 years after America’s birth represented freedom in the world—Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Shirley Babashoff (as well as coaches Nelson, Montrella and Elm) upheld the principle that having the freedom to prepare can bring victory—for all of us…forever.
And that is why we believe the USA’s 1976 Olympic gold medal swim in the women’s 400 freestyle relay is the greatest triumph in the history of swimming.
Publisher Note: Swimming World Magazine has made repeated request to the International Olympic Committee to correct the records and recognize that the 1976 Olympic Games were tainted. To date, no action has been taken either by FINA or the IOC.
Watch Coach Jack Nelson Relive The Race In His Own Words On Video
Chuck Warner is a member of Swimming World Magazine’s editorial board and author of “Four Champions: One Gold Medal” and “And Then They Won Gold.” Both books are available for purchase online at www.SwimmingWorld.com.