Shirley Babashoff: A Portrait of Olympic Courage and Inspiration

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Shirley Babashoff with her Olympic Medals at the SPMS Clinic.

Legendary Shirley Babashoff, elite Olympian, spoke at a recent Southern Pacific Masters Swimming coaches clinic in Mission Viejo. As the featured speaker, she talked about her experience at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the state-sponsored doping of the East German women. She was generous with her time answering questions, letting attendees try on her Olympic medals and snap selfies with her. Her sense of humor, outspoken and down-to-earth answers were refreshing.

Babashoff is recognized as one of the all-time great U.S. women swimmers. She won gold at the ’72 Munich Olympics, but unfortunately, she competed against the East German women’s team in Montreal in ’76. Babashoff went public with her story in her 2016 book, “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.”

At the clinic, she spoke about life after her Olympic career. When she was a swimmer, the Amateur Athletic Union kept everyone on amateur status. She said she had worked for Arena and made a cotton commercial since representing the United States at the Olympics. When she wanted to swim with US Masters she was told no.

She coached and taught swimming for 10 years including at Los Caballeros, Fountain Valley to triathletes and children. She said had a lot of fun, “but I needed a job with benefits like health insurance, so I took a job with the U.S. Post Office as a letter carrier. I’m in Southern California on the beach and I can hear the waves crash while I’m outside at work.” Her life focused on raising her son and centered around her role as a mom.

Babashoff was asked if she swam now, and she said she did, “But I don’t get my hair wet.”

THE EARLY YEARS:

“We moved from pool to pool and I swam on lots of teams.”

At age eight, she took lessons at Cerritos College, not far from their house in Norwalk before switching to the Norwalk High School pool for Red Cross lessons and her first race. At nine years old, she and her older brother Jack joined the Buena Park Splashers. At 11, Shirley joined a team with both brothers Jack and Bill in El Monte. Jill Sterkel was on the El Monte team and the coach was Don La Mont.

By age 13, they swam on a team at Golden West College in Huntington Beach called Phillips 66, sponsored by the oil company, and she swam with one of the two most influential coaches she’d have—Ralph “Flip” Darr.

“In California, where the sun shines almost all year long, we could find a meet practically anywhere. We went to meets in San Diego, Redlands, Los Angeles, Apple Valley, Lakewood Buena Park and many other cities.”

Babashoff said the weekends going to swim meets were her life. She has great memories of going out of town, playing cards and clackers with other swimmers in between races. She said she remembers going to Indio for a meet, and her family drove all the way there and back in one day because they couldn’t afford money to stay in a motel.

“I loved going to those swim meets. There were hundreds of kids at them. I saw my friends from my own team and made new friends from other teams. I got to see my competition from a wider group of girls—not just from my own club, but from other cubs that were the ones to beat.” (p. 31 “Making Waves”)

MISSION VIEJO NADADORES AND MARK SCHUBERT:

In 1971, her mom moved them to Fountain Valley which was next to Huntington Beach. Flip Darr retired and she had to find another team. She said there were only two choices that made sense at her level. She could train at the Belmont Plaza or “I could go with the new guy in Mission Viejo—Mark Schubert.”

She said, “I didn’t even know where Mission Viejo was, which was 30 miles away. But back then you could drive 30 miles in 30 minutes.

“We heard all these horror stories of Schubert’s workouts of 15,000 yards a day and more. I went with a couple friends from our team to try it out and it was 8,000 to 9,000 yards, similar to what we were used to doing. After a couple days, I told Mark that we’d decided to join the team. The next day practice was 15,000 yards.

“It was a way of life. Practice before school, classes, practice at the high school and then back to Mission Viejo. I had three practices a day.”

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE EAST GERMAN WOMEN:

Babashoff talked about her first big meet after joining the Mission Viejo Nadadores. “My first FINA World Championships I felt stronger, I was so excited and full of myself. We were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia at the pool to warm up and the doors were all locked. They said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ That was strange because all the nations warmed up together. But they wouldn’t let us in when East Germans were there. I knew then something was up. Super shocking to see the women. They were huge. I’d never heard of steroids, it was so foreign to me. I was very naive.”

She said that from ’72 to ’76, Mark (Schubert) had to deal with the East Germans saying, “new suits, high altitude training, etc. They never said, oh we’re taking steroids. We beat them sometimes. They did testing back then, but on testing-day, the East Germans didn’t show up (if they knew they wouldn’t pass) because they had a “runny nose.” She said one difference today is that there is random testing and the athlete’s whereabouts are known every day.

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The Belmont Pool, site of the 1976 Olympic Trials where Shirley Babashoff won six events.

Schubert asked her to describe the ’76 Olympic trials. He said she had “the best meet that had ever been swum.” In Belmont at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she won the 100, 200, 400, 800 free and the 200 and 400 IM. She won them all.

1976 MONTREAL OLYMPICS:

Babshoff said when she made the Olympic team, she wasn’t allowed to be with Mark as her coach. The U.S. Olympic team went to West Point to train and she didn’t swim the back, fly or breast once during practice and she was swimming the IM in Montreal. She wasn’t happy with the training but enjoyed the time with her teammates. Also, at Montreal, they took out the 200 IM from the program to save time.

She recalled seeing President Gerald Ford for the second time in a couple months. They were in Pittsburg which was a staging area for the US athletes before they left for the Games. After he spoke at the Pittsburg Air Force Base where the athletes joined him on stage, he shook hands with all the athletes. Then he asked, “Where is Shirley Babashoff?” She said it was surreal to hear the President of the United ask for her.

“Shirley,” President Ford said, “It’s so good to see you again.” He asked her how many events she was going to swim and he said, “Ah, just like that guy Jack Spitz.”

It was on their first trip to the aquatics venue in Montreal when she first heard and saw the East Germans at the ’76 Olympics. She said they were changing in the locker room, and heard low masculine voices. They all screamed because they thought men were in the locker room. Later they saw them with their muscles, broad shoulders and thunder thighs bigger than ever before.

The backlash in the media against Babashoff began when she told the truth about what she was seeing. From her book (p. 137), she explained the scene on her way to the team bus with the media asking questions with lights flashing, and microphones in their faces:

“Shirley, Shirley! What do you think of the East German team?”

“What can you tell us about the East German team?”

The questions were all redundant and overlapping. But I stopped for a moment and said into one of the reporters’ microphones, “Well except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine.”

I saw some eyes widen and a couple of jaws drop. The reporters then fired off a couple of follow-up questions, which I answered basically the same way. Then I got on the bus and went back to the village to have dinner with my teammates.

Jim Montrella said he wished that USA Swimming back in the 1970s had coached or better prepared their athletes for talking to the media. He apologized and said he felt they had let her down as her coaches of the Olympic Team. The backlash she received for speaking to the media was overwhelming.

Babashoff thanked Montrella but said she was proud of what she said. “It was the truth.” She said she has a sister 13 years younger and her sister said they watched a video on how to talk to the press and that they used Shirley as an example of how not to do it.

She said it was so obvious that the East German’s were doping and everyone ignored it. 
She worked so hard and lost because of cheating. “I’m still bitter about it now,” she said. The media called her “Surly Shirley” but her teammates supported her for being outspoken about the East German team. She was the only one who spoke out about it at the time.

She said she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I learned to swim at eight years old and seven years later, I was breaking World records and swimming in the Olympics. ‘Is that the same Olympics on TV?’ I remember asking my mom after making the U.S. Olympic team in 1972.”

VIDEO OF THE 4 x 100 FREE RELAY WHERE THE US WOMEN’S TEAM WON GOLD AT THE 1976 OLYMPICS:

At the ’76 Olympics, Babashoff won four silver medals and the relay team of  Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Babashoff won the gold.

“When I’m at work and tell my co-workers that I’ve been to Morocco, Japan, Yugoslavia, etc. they think I’m lying. I loved to compete. I loved to travel. Going on all the trips, even to go on an airplane was amazing. Our family didn’t have money and that wasn’t something we got to do.”

THE RECORD BOOKS:

Babashoff said she’d like to get the records corrected for the 1976 Olympics. “The East German women swimmers sued their own country. The doping has been proven, they’ve admitted it. They didn’t have swim coaches, they had scientists and doctors. They couldn’t swim breaststroke correctly, but they were big and strong.”

The Olympic Committee told her no because it had been longer than eight years. She said the Berlin Wall didn’t come down for 13 years later in 1989, so she didn’t think the eight-year rule should apply.

“A lot of women deserve medals,” she said. “There were women who got fifth or sixth who had two or three East Germans beat them. These women are someone’s grandmothers now, and wouldn’t it be nice for them to finally get the medals they earned and share this with their families?”

The same year her book was published, a documentary came out about the East German state-sponsored doping program called “The Last Gold.” “Weird how things happen,” Babashoff said. “I decided to work on a book 40 years later, it comes out along with a documentary about the East German’s, and then there’s controversy about Russian doping in the 2016 Olympics. It’s coincidental.”

Here’s a link to the documentary “The Last Gold.”

She was asked if her son who is now grown and married ever swam. She said she tried to teach him when he was young and he wasn’t interested and wouldn’t swim for her. She recalled the time she was with him at Mission Bay in San Diego. She watched him swim like Michael Phelps.

I asked him, “What are you doing?”
“Swimming,“ he answered.
“Yes, but you’re really swimming. I’ve never seen you swim like this before.”
He answered her, “I was afraid you’d put me on a swim team.”
“Like I’d drop him off with Schubert,” she said laughing.

Most of her mail customers don’t know who she is or that she’s an Olympic star. She did, however, have a connection with the co-author of her book Chris Epstein through her route. She heard his name and recalled having an Epstein on her mail route. She asked Mrs. Epstein if she knew Chris. Mrs. Epstein said, “That’s my baby.” Another coincidence, Babashoff explained, “It turns out that his mom, who was my customer, had been at the 1976 Olympics, too.”

Babashoff swam briefly at UCLA, but the weight trainer gave her flashbacks of the East Germans, she said. The trainer worked them out so hard their legs were jello before they got into the pool. It wasn’t how she wanted to train and Shirley said, “I just had enough.” That’s when she officially retired.

Today, she still loves to travel and has a motorhome and travels throughout the country. She’s been to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and enjoys the time outside on her own.

About the ’72 and ’76 Olympics: “Everyone knew East Germans were doping but back then there was no way to prove it.” Babashoff says if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t change a thing.

If you haven’t read “Making  Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program” here’s a link to Amazon to purchase Shirley Babashoff’s courageous life story:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sippy Woodhead: From Swimming Legend to Swim Mom

 

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Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead, age 13, on her first national team trip, Leningrad, Russia. Photos courtesy of Sippy Woodhead.

Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead’s phenomenal swim career includes seven world records beginning at age 14 at the 1978 World Championships in Berlin and a silver medal from the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, six years later. She holds numerous So Cal Swimming records and two National Age Group Records–the longest-standing records on the books for girls. She trained with Riverside Aquatics Association in a pool which is now named the Sippy Woodhead Pool. She remembers her dad driving her by the pool to show her its new name.

 

How did you get involved with swimming?

“I grew up in Riverside and it was 100 degrees and more in the summer. There was a swimming pool a block away from my house. I waited at the gates for the pool to open at 10 a.m. and it closed at 6 p.m. I spent the entire day there. We just played–everyone played sharks and minnows and we hunted for lizards around the deck.

“At the end of the day, we’d walk home. My brother and sister swam in summer league. I wasn’t old enough to swim but they’d let me get in once in a while. They’d humor me. I could barely swim a stroke properly. When I was old enough, I joined the team. I swam summers until I was 11 years old. That was the first year I swam year-round.”

She began her swimming career with Chuck Riggs and the Riverside Aquatics Association. “I saw Chuck for the first time in about 20 years at a meet a few weeks ago, at JAG,” she said. “It was fun to see him. I stayed at RAA until I was 16. Then I went to Mission Viejo for two years and swam with Mark Schubert and then at USC.

At USC, she swam for Don LaMont and Peter Daland. “I felt so lucky to be able to swim with Peter Daland. He had a way of delivering a set and that’s what you’re going to do. You didn’t question him. He’s there in his button-down shirt delivering a set and you didn’t disrespect him.” Sippy said she trained with Peter Daland for the 1984 Olympics, where she earned a silver medal in the 200 free.

Her many accomplishments in swimming are highlighted in the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame:

Cynthia Woodhead Brennan

Her success came so quickly, her rise in the sport so meteoric. “Sippy” began her swimming career as a youth in Riverside’s public pools, competing in a summer recreation league. She decided to focus on competitive swimming at age 12 for the Riverside Aquatics Association. The next year, 1978, she stunned the swimming world by winning three gold medals and two silver medals at the World Championships.

In 1979, she won five gold medals at the Pan American Games and four gold medals at the World Cup.

Though she was denied a chance to be a star of the 1980 Olympics by a political boycott, her place was secure as one of the finest swimmers ever.

As a 15-year-old in the 1980 Olympic Trials, held after the Moscow Games, she won the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events, finished second in the 400 and 800 and also qualified in two relays. For her career, she set seven world records and 18 American records. She retired from competitive swimming after winning a silver medal in the 200 freestyle in the 1984 Olympics. Her U.S. record in the 200-meter freestyle stood from 1978 until 1992.

Sippy—a nickname given to her as an infant from her 2-year-old sister—attended Poly High School for two years before transferring to Mission Viejo. She was the first four-time California high school swimmer of the year. She was a three-time All-America at USC and is a member of the USC Hall of Fame. She was a runner-up for the Sullivan Award, given to the country’s finest amateur athlete. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1994. Sippy Woodhead Pool, a public pool in Riverside was re-named in her honor.

She graduated from USC with a degree in journalism and later earned a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling. She was an assistant swim coach at USC from 1989-97 and has done television commentary.

How Has Swimming Changed?

As a swim parent, Sippy notices many changes through the years. She’s the mother of twins who started swimming at age nine and 11. They just turned 14 and will be entering the eighth grade.

“We did a lot more yardage, I swam with Chuck Riggs. We did a whole lot of swimming and not much race pace. That’s just the way it was back then. That’s what I see as the biggest change. But at the gym, my kids’ workout is about identical to what I did. They’ve gone back to circuit training very much like what I was doing.”

Tech suits weren’t around when Sippy was breaking world records and she told her kids they weren’t getting tech suits until they went to sectionals. “Now they both got their sectional cuts, so here we go. I felt like I had to draw the line somewhere. The kids need to know it’s not the suit—it’s the hard work and consistently showing up for practice that makes them fast. The suit is a bonus.

“It used to be a much more friendly environment for the kids,” she said about meets. “Now there’s officials and yellow tape blocking parent’s access. I think it’s necessary because I don’t think parents used to hover so much. But, I feel it’s not as user-friendly for the kids.”

She remembered the time she was late for an event and how it was handled so differently than at meets today. “I went to a B meet in Mont Clair because I had to get times for an A meet. I literally walked through the gates and I’d never seen a 50-meter pool before in my life and they called my name. I was in my sweats and I took my clothes off behind the blocks and they waited for me. I got on the blocks and swam. I didn’t even know how many laps were in a 200 free in a long course pool. I ended up being way ahead of everybody. I thought I’d look up and I knew if the timers were standing up with their stop watches, it would be the end of my race. That was my first experience of being late. I ended up breaking the world record in the 200 free, the event I almost missed, literally three years later.”

In contrast to her experience, her son missed an event at the second meet of his life. She said he was already nervous about having to swim in the afternoon session with the older kids. “He was new to swimming, but he’s is tall and looks older, and he was in a fast heat so the official probably assumed he’d been swimming a while.” She said her son felt awful and was embarrassed.

“I don’t remember the parents being so wrapped around their kids,” Sippy said. “I honestly don’t remember seeing my parents at a meet. I know they were there, but I don’t think I ever communicated with them. It was more like a playdate. I don’t see that anymore. I see a lot more hovering and parents carrying towels, getting kids their heats and lanes. It didn’t use to be that way.”

Sippy said their team traveled to meets in Palm Springs, East LA, Mission Viejo and Long Beach. She said that Southern California Swimming had one Junior Olympics, not three like we have today. “We didn’t have all the meets or the swimmers.” The big teams and coaches she remembers were Dick Jochums in Long Beach,  Jon Urbanchek in Anaheim, Jim Montrella at Lakewood and El Monte Aquatics where Jill Sterkel swam with Don LaMont “Dick Jochums had a bunch of guys swimming for him like Tim Shaw. He had a great group of guys down there.”

The swimmers all knew each other and they knew the officials. “One official would come up to me after I swam and say ‘Sippy, you’re getting a little close on that back to breast turn.’ He’d give me a warning like ‘I’m getting ready to call you on it just so you know.’ It was so helpful, I’d practice it so it wasn’t questionable.”

She said the starters used guns that shot blanks. Also, they had a person hand out cards with their heats and lanes. “You’d pick up your card and hand it to the timer behind the blocks. It was like a feeding frenzy when the person came out with the cards. Maybe that’s why parents weren’t involved, kids were doing everything.”

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Sippy’s first world record at the World Championships in Berlin at age 14 in 1978.

What Advice Do You Have for Swim Parents?

“I treat my kids the way I was treated. Swimming was my thing and I want this to be their thing. I don’t want them to think I’m taking credit. I don’t want to hover and I don’t want them to think that their swimming is because of me or something I did.

“I give them their food bags and put $20 in them. I leave them with the team. I check on their water bottles and refill them because I want to make sure they’re drinking, but they don’t notice that I was even there. If I run into them on the deck I’ll say something like, ‘good job.’ But I don’t hunt them down, I want them to be free. The most fun I had at meets was hanging out with my friends. You felt like your parents weren’t there. It was fun to be at meets, it wasn’t stressful. I want them to have that same experience.

“When they were younger and practices were an hour, I would wait and watch practice. I was happy to sit by the pool and listen to the water. I love the sound of kids swimming, the splashing.”

Sippy offers advice to newer swim parents: “Leave your kids alone. Let swimming be their thing as much as possible. You’re there to provide equipment and food and get out of the way. Swimmers put so much pressure on themselves. It’s so much easier to be a parent than the swimmer. I don’t mind going to these meets, there’s no pressure on me. I go sit in my Tommy Bahama chair all day.”

One of the things Sippy enjoys about swim meets is seeing the kids of other swimmers, who are her friends. “I was timing and saw Janet Evans across the pool watching her daughter, who was in my lane. Her daughter got out so upset with her swim and I stood up and gave her a hug and told her it was going to be okay, that she’d get that girl the next time.” Sippy said there are kids running around on the deck with famous swim parents, but because their last names are different, they’re under the radar of most people. She thinks it’s better for them to be unknown and have less pressure.

Sippy Woodhead held many records including age group records in Southern California. Her following records are still on the books:

11-12 girls:

200 yard free   1:52.01   1977
500 yard free   4:49.51   1977
400 meter free 4:22.86   1976

13-14 girls:

200 yard free  1:46.40   1978
500 yard free  4:39.94   1978
200 meter free 1:58.53  1978 NAG Record
400 meter free 4:07.15  1978 NAG Record
800 meter free 8:29.35  1978

15-16 girls:

200 yard free  1:44.10 1979
200 meter free 1:58.23 1979

 

John Ries Began His Illustrious Career in a Back Yard

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With a coaching career that started in a Southern California backyard in 1961, Coach John Ries has fascinating stories to tell. A native of So Cal, he played high school baseball, basketball and football at Pomona High School. He swam for one year in college at Cal Poly Pomona.

His father-in-law Herb Weightman ran a swim school and he asked John to help out with summer lessons. It was in June when John returned home from the service that he began coaching. With 60 kids in their program, they had to get creative on how to conduct their lessons. John explained that his father-in-law drilled holes every two feet around the pool and put in poles. A rope was attached to the poles with belts to go around the kids. They had 20 to 30 kids in the pool at once doing stationary freestyle. With this unorthodox method, they developed some good swimmers in the AAU.

Claremont had a team, but there was a tragedy with a female diver training for the Olympics. According to John, a young boy dove or jumped off the high dive onto the diver and paralyzed her. The swim team was canceled after that. People were obviously upset about the accident, but they were also up in arms that the whole team was canceled.

“Eventually, word got out about what Herb and I were doing in Pomona. We were asked to start up a team at El Robles Junior High in Claremont,” John said.

The team became the Claremont Crocodiles. John laughed when he recalled the gift the team gave him one year—a live crocodile. From 1962 to 1971, John coached the Crocs.

“Chaffey High school asked me if I could coach there. I went to Chaffey because they had a 50-meter pool. I worked there for 10 years until 1982 as head coach of the Chaffey Tiger Sharks. Dave Radcliffe, who competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was a prior coach for the team.

“I went to Industry Hills and I was there for 10 years. I started as an assistant coach but took over for Don LaMont. Don went to USC. We had Olympians, national level swimmers. When I was at Industry Hills, it was beautiful. It had a first class hotel, a 50-meter pool, a 25-yard pool, lockers—it was state of the art and the best in the country at the time.”

John’s next step in his swim coaching career was retirement. He said, “I retired and then Stan Clark, who owned the Claremont Club, asked me if I would come start a swim team. He was building a 50-meter pool. He hired someone else and that coach had some weird ideas. They got rid of the other coach, so he approached me again. I’ve been here for more than 25 years.”

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The Claremont Club 50-meter pool.

Although John says he’s coached a number of great kids, a few of the swimmers who were standouts during his coaching career include:

Jeff Kostoff, Industry Hills, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1988 Seoul Olympics. Distance swimmer and 400IM. He held the 500 free national high school record for 30 years and the 1650 Stanford record for 21 years. He’s an assistant coach at Stanford.

Jenna Johnson, Industry Hills, 2X gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, 400-free relay and 400-medley relay, plus silver medalist in the 100 fly.

Olympian Doug Northway, “Fourth at Olympics for distance in 1972 Munich Olympics. Rick DeMont, who is the coach for Arizona Wildcats, won first, but they stripped his medal because of his inhaler for asthma. They’ve been trying to reinstate his medal. But, the rest were bumped up and Northway got the bronze medal.” In the 1976 Quebec Olympics, Northway swam prelims for the gold medal winning relay team, but at that time they didn’t award medals for swimmers who swam only in prelims.

Noelle Tarazona, UCLA and NCAA competitor, 3X All-American, Assistant Coach at Pomona-Pitzer. “She has been all over the world with her swimming. Also, she’s been to Colorado Springs as a representative to talk to USA Swimming about what can be improved. Hardest working girl ever.”

Joe Dykstra, “Joey swam from six years old through high school with me. Swam at the University of Washington and is currently a PAC 12 head coach for the Utes. Fantastic kid. One of the top ten swimmers I’ve ever coached, and is wonderful as a person.”

John attributes the fun atmosphere, stability of staff and great families to his success in his coaching career. “Everyone gets along, the olders are good to youngers. We have a banquet and we don’t charge the swimmers. It’s a luau, beach party at Christmas. We try to keep it fun all the time. It’s important to have great athletics, but it has to be fun for the kids to work hard.”

He said, “It’s important to teach coaches how to teach strokes properly. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a program.”

John’s thoughts about his swim coaching career is best expressed by him:

“I’ve enjoyed great groups of kids. I love what I’m doing. I’m still doing it.”

photos from http://www.claremontclub.com/club/scripts/section/section.asp?NS=HOMEPAGE

Four-time Olympian Jill Sterkel’s Career Began as a So Cal Age Group Swimmer

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Photos courtesy of Jill Sterkel.

Jill Sterkel, four-time Olympian, grew up in Hacienda Heights, graduated from Glen A. Wilson High School and remembers the “healthy family lifestyle” of swimming. Her mom was a swimmer, and the three Sterkel kids, Jill, her older brother and younger sister, jumped into the pool together.fullsizerender

Sterkel was part of the 4 x 100 relay that beat the  East Germans in 1976 for Olympic gold (video here). Following a near sweep of gold–except for that one relay, a doping scandal followed the East German women, which is still in the headlines today. Sterkel was a world-record holder in the 50 meter free, an NCAA champion for Texas Longhorns, and qualified for three more Olympics: 1980, 1984 and 1988.  She won four medals in three Olympic Games spanning twelve years. (USA boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which were held in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.) Sterkel was the women’s head coach of the Texas Longhorns swimming and diving team at the University of Texas at Austin from 1992 to 2007.

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When did you start swimming?

“My grandparents had a pool and they wanted us to be water safe. It was a thing for the whole family to do. We started with swim lessons, and the same place had a summer league team. One thing led to another.

“My first team was Hacienda Heights Aquatic Club. At age 10, the coach who was good friends with our family, suggested we might go to a year-round program, a little bigger than the program we were with.”

The coach suggested the Sterkel kids join El Monte Aquatics. Sterkel remembers there were several coaches on the year-round team and at age 10 she was the youngest to be in Don Lamont’s group.

“Hacienda Heights was a good club team, but it wasn’t the same caliber as El Monte. El Monte had people who were going to nationals. Very much an established AAU or USA club. When I look back on it, our coach wasn’t very selfish to tell us to go to a bigger team. That is pretty amazing.

“We all swam. Not everything revolved around swimming, but a lot did. All three of us were part of the team and active swimmers. In age group swimming, we were going to swim meets every other weekend. It sort of becomes your social life as well. It’s awesome that it’s so much fun.”img_3677

Early on, what was one of your most exciting swim experiences? What stands out the most?

“In all honesty, from my very earliest memories which would have been on my Hacienda Heights Club team, The thing I remember the coach would do, it sounds silly. We would do ‘king of the mountain’ swimming. The coach made a lot of the harder things fun. I hated kicking, but when we did kicking sets, we’d do 25s and the little kids would go, which would be me. Then the bigger kids would wait 10 seconds and try to catch. Stuff like that stands out, it’s a lasting memory I have.

“What I remember most, what stands out, of course I obviously remember winning the gold medal in ’76 and that stands out, but I remember Nationals–going as a team.

As a 15-year-old at the 1976 Summer Olympics, she won a gold medal as a member of the winning U.S. team in the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay, together with her teammates Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli and Shirley Babashoff. After the U.S. women’s team had been outshone in nearly every event by their East German rivals, Peyton, Boglioli, Sterkel and Babashoff achieved a moral victory by not only winning the relay gold medal, but also by breaking the East Germans’ world record in the event final. — Wikipedia

“Flying was a big deal, we’d get the same outfits. Different songs would go with different Nationals. There’d be shaving cream fights and shaving parties. All of those things that make up the process, not just going to certain meets. We’d always go to Santa Clara and Mission Viejo. The people. We had such a great group of people. We had a lot of amazing people involved in swimming.”

Sterkel shares more memories of what it was like to be a So Cal Age Group Swimmer:

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“I remember going up to Lemoore, I couldn’t tell you where it was. Everyone camped. We had a little RV. The meet lasted from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. I don’t remember swimming at all, but I do remember the things we did–like killing the time before your next event. It was pretty much a fabric of our life growing up.

“We would go to an age group meet, we’d all stay at the same hotel, so after the meet it would be like a whole reunion party. The kids would be in the pool, the parents would be sitting around, very much a healthy family friendly atmosphere.

“The weird thing was when I was really young I went to JOs, but I started going to Nationals at a pretty young age, so I didn’t do a lot of age group meets.”

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How did you get into coaching?

“In college I began to pay attention. Probably in all honesty, not that I didn’t care about swimming and wanted to do well, because I did. But, it wasn’t until college that I sort of learned certain things. I was taught certain things by my coach that I didn’t know before. Part of it was the times. I had never been taught breathing patterns or race strategy. I think in those years, that a lot of it didn’t come along until later. And it got more scientific after that.

“It opened the door to me having conversations like ‘why would you do that?’ Or ‘why would that work?’ It was intriguing. It had a huge impact on my performance and the one thing that was really nice was the coaches. I had Paul Bergen and Richard Quick. It wasn’t taboo to ask. Obviously, it’s how you do the ask as well. They were very open to explaining things. That got me along thinking along that path.

“When I first came into college, I wanted to take the concept of biology and put it into physical education. So, it wasn’t just like recess, but actually maybe physical things and learning the science behind it.  That was my vision for the future. I was way ahead of my time as far as personal trainer, and I was going to put it into the high school setting like the teaching element of it. I always had an affinity for learning that stuff. It was something that I liked to talk about, think about it.”

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Today, Jill Sterkel has a son in age group swimming and works for the University of Texas. #SoCalSwimHistory