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.”
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:
200 yard free 1:52.01 1977
500 yard free 4:49.51 1977
400 meter free 4:22.86 1976
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
200 yard free 1:44.10 1979
200 meter free 1:58.23 1979