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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vic Hecker, Coach of Las Vegas Masters, Held First CIF for Women

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Las Vegas Masters Coach Victor Hecker. photo from Las Vegas Sun

 

While Victor Hecker was a student in community college, he answered an ad to be a swim instructor for a chain of swim schools in the Los Angeles area called Swim Art Swim Schools. They held summer swim lessons in pools in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Covina and Long Beach.

No experience was required, which was ideal because Hecker was a basketball player, not a swimmer. According to Hecker, the swim school did a good job of training instructors. At the end of the summer, they held a competition in Hollywood. The owner allowed Hecker to be an honorary coach and although his kids didn’t win because they were newer swimmers, they did well. He said he noticed how well-coached the winning team was. “The experience tickled my interest,” he said, “I stayed with the swim school for more years, learning and improving as a coach.” He was able to buy his first swim school from his boss and eventually owned swim schools in La Habra, Whittier and Long Beach.

He was studying at Cal State Long Beach and was influenced by Kinesiology professor Herb de Vries who had written many books on swimming and fitness, as well running the Long Beach Swim Club. Hecker said de Vries was very motivating and he learned a lot from him. Hecker also attended all the AAU clinics he could with the greats sharing their knowledge like Peter Daland and Doc Councilman and Don Gambrel. “The coaches took an interest in me because I was so interested in learning and improving.”

He began to have success with a young age group of 12-13-year-olds. They traveled to swim meets in Southern California and other parts of the country. “Word got out because were getting good,” he said.

“Paul Cohee, who was the father of one of my swimmers at Lynwood Swim Club, was superintendent of the school district,” Hecker said. “At the time, I hadn’t finished my four-year degree, but Cohee told me to finish my degree and he would bring me on board to teach and coach at Lynwood High School.”

“In 1967, I went to a clinic in Washington state at the University of Washington. Mark Spitz came with his coach and I came with one of my high school swimmers, Frank Heckl, who went to Olympic Trials was recruited all over the country,” he said. “Different coaches got to give a workout and I got a lot of calls after my workout from other coaches because of the creative things I was doing.”

Frank Heckl won the 200 free at CIF in Southern California and had the National High School record, which was then broken the next day in Northern Cal by Mark Spitz. Heckl went on to swim for USC and was a seven-time Pan American Games medalist and former world record-holder in two relay events. Hecker said he had the privilege to coach Shirley Babashoff and her brother Jack at Lynwood High School. Babashoff  became a world record holder and gold medalist from the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. He said his Lynwood High School swimmers were some of the best from 1970 through 1973, finishing in the top five of the country.

Before Title IX, he said there wasn’t a CIF meet for girls. He was instrumental in getting a championship meet for high school girls at the Beverly Hills pool in 1970 and received a plaque thanking him for his efforts.

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Coach Vic writing down splits and notes at SPMS Champs 2013. Photo from Las Vegas Masters.

In 1974, he received an offer to be the first swimming coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was promised 13 scholarships and many of his high school swimmers followed him to UNLV. Unfortunately, the Athletic Director didn’t follow through with his many promises, and the scholarships weren’t available until his athletes gained residency. He lost many of his swimmers to University of Texas and USC and other powerhouse swim schools.

While at UNLV, Hecker began the Las Vegas Swim Club and grew the team to more than 250 swimmers. His goal was to develop swimmers at his AAU club to eventually swim at UNLV. He was told by the administration that his club team was a conflict of interest, so he decided at that time to leave UNLV as head coach and focus on the club. He soon had swimmers competing at Junior Nationals and Nationals with the best teams in the country.we_swim_for_vic

While coaching, he also earned his real estate license and said the late 70s and 80s were a great time to be in real estate in Las Vegas. He retired from coaching in the 1980s to focus on his real estate business. It wasn’t until 2000 that he coached his youngest daughter who was in high school in the Las Vegas Municipal pool. Other swimmers asked him for pointers. Soon, he found himself coaching a group of adults which was the start of the Las Vegas Masters.

He is so respected that some swimmers move to Las Vegas to be in his program. Club members wear shirts with the saying, “We swim for Vic.” He said his masters has many great swimmers including former All-Americans as well as beginners. This year, the Las Vegas Masters placed third at the 2017 US Masters Spring Nationals, following The Olympic Club and San Diego Swim Masters.

Coach Vic’s philosophy is that you swim forever, not a season. He believes that swimming keeps people healthy and young. At 82-years-old, coaching keeps Victor Hecker young, active and healthy, too.

From the Las Vegas Masters website:

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Coach Vic won the award for 2014 Southern Pacific Coach of the Year!   Congratulations Coach Vic!  You deserve it!

Coach Victor Hecker has been guiding Las Vegas Masters swim team to great successes since 2000, including our big WINS at the 2015 and 2016 SPMS Regional & SW Zone Championships.

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  • Named SPMS Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2014!
  • Awarded the Kerry O’Brien Coaching Award in 2015
  • Certified USMS Level 3 Masters Coach
  • Coaching swimming in the Las Vegas area since 1974
  • Former UNLV collegiate swimming coach
  • Coached Olympic gold-medalists, Olympic Trials qualifiers, and world record holders
  • Coached swimmers include recreational, triathletes, competitive swimmers
  • Works with competitive swimmers to set goals and specializes in discerning the critical differences to success