Shirley Babashoff got a raw deal. Probably one of the biggest in USA swimming history. Although she earned silvers in all of her individual events during the Montreal 1976 Games and set American records along the way, she was condemned for “only” winning one gold (4×100 free relay), then vilified for her outspokenness about the suspicious performance and manly appearance of the her East German competitors.
Labeled “Surly Shirley” and slammed as a “poor sport” by the media, it’s no wonder Babashoff avoided the press until just this year to publish Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.
Making Waves begins with a fascinating look at Babashoff’s early swimming days and rise to international dominance, but the true focus of this as-told-to autobiography co-authored by Chris Epting is, of course, the events leading up to the ’76 Olympics and subsequent fallout.
For me, it was fascinating to read Babshoff’s account of the events that made such an impression on me as a child. The ’76 Games were the first on my radar as a young age grouper – it was a huge deal to watch on TV all the big names I read about in Swimming World compete at night, and to then discuss everything to the smallest detail the next morning with my teammates during practice. The proximity of these Games may also partly explain their impact on me – many of the older swimmers on my team made the short road trip from upstate New York to Montreal and saw the swimming live.
What troubles me the most from my adult perspective is the lack of support for Babashoff at the time. While I understand that evidence is needed to make a doping accusation stick, certainly someone else, anyone else, would’ve backed up Babashoff’s observations – no-one develops overnight into an international champion in this sport, and clearly the East German women did not look at all like their competitors. Hell, if the worst insult among my 9-10 female age group at the time was “she looks like an East German!” it wasn’t super-secret that the East Germans were up to something unnatural.
The contrast to today is particularly stark. Foremost, American swimmers are now groomed within an inch of their life to avoid any media backlash, but this has resulted in an endless stream of “I’ve worked really hard, my competitors are awesome and always bring out the best in me, I’ll just swim my best and see what happens” banal interviews. Second, doping suspicions are openly discussed, posted, etc., within in moments of an out-of-nowhere performance (e.g. Ireland’s Michelle Smith, China’s Ye Shewin).
It was also extremely worrisome to read about the abuse Babashoff suffered from both parents. Yet another case supporting the argument that for some, endless training as a means to stuff-down emotions, creates a seemingly “driven” and thus very successful swimmer. It’s enough to make me wonder if mandatory screening for warning signs of abuse and mental issues isn’t a bad idea to help swimmers as early as possible.
The other two lasting impressions from Making Waves, for me at least, are much less scandalous than doping and child abuse. I didn’t know Babashoff was an equally strong IMer at both the 200 and 400 distances. I’ve always associated her with just freestyle. Yet, she won the 400 IM at the ’76 Trials (she didn’t swim the event, however, because she wasn’t prepared – she was told to focus on free during the weeks leading up to the Games at training camp.) Finally I was struck by how loosey-goosey things were in the ‘70s swim world. Traveling from Houston to New Orleans by herself at age 14 to get her passport? Swimming for the men’s team in college while also training with the Nadadores? These sorts of things would never have happened in my era, even though it was only ten years later.
Making Waves is smart, compelling book that serves as Babshoff’s call to rectify the results of the women’s swim events from ’76, to both to honor those who competed drug-free, but more importantly, so everyone involved can heal and thus move on. After reading it, one does wonder why amendments still have not been made in this glaring case, especially when evidence of the East German doping (state-wide program!) has surfaced, and similar corrections have already occurred among other Olympics sports.