April 20, 2016
Shirley Babashoff could have been America’s golden girl. The female equivalent to Mark Spitz, with all the accolades that went with it: Wheaties boxes, endorsements, all of it. It’s what should have been.
“I kind of was,” she says of the Spitz comparison. “Except for one thing.”
That one thing was a doozy. But for a state-sponsored drug program in East Germany that produced better women’s swimmers through science, Babashoff could have been arguably the swimmer of her generation, not only in the U.S. but in the entire world.
In 1976, Shirley Babashoff was a marvel and the best thing possibly ever to come along in American women’s swimming. But she had the incredibly poor luck to come along at the same time the East German sports machine was creating a generation of female super-athletes nicknamed The Wundermadchen.
Instead of the next Spitz, Babashoff would be labeled by the media as “Surly Shirley.”
In the Montreal Olympics, except for one remarkable upset in relay action, Babashoff and the American women could not overcome East German science. When Babashoff failed to become the golden girl, winning four silver medals, and complained that something was rotten, she became Silver Shirley, the sore loser.
Thirteen years after Babashoff cried out for justice, her suspicions about East German swimmers were validated. Documents showed that East German girls, often unwittingly, had been raised on performance enhancers, some starting as young as 11 years old. Several officials have been prosecuted for supplying illegal drugs to teenagers.
“It’s such a big farce that (East Germany) got away with it,” Babashoff said of the doping program that fully came to light in 1989. “And they got away with it in front of everyone.”
Telling her story
Now, 40 years after the Montreal Games and with the Rio de Janiero Games approaching, Babashoff is back in the news with a book due out in July: “Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program,” written with Huntington Beach author Chris Epting.
Babashoff, 59, is still on just about any top 10 list of greatest U.S. women’s Olympic swimmers. And yet her achievements pale compared with what could have and should have been.
“I know she wonders what it would have been like,” Epting says of Babashoff’s life without the shadow of steroids.
As part of the run-up to release of the book, the Fountain Valley resident has been hitting the talk circuit, including addressing the swimmers from rivals Edison and Fountain Valley high schools before their annual showdown.
She says her message to young swimmers is “to win something by yourself rather than have a crutch.”
With the anniversary coming up, now is as good a time as any.
“I’ve always wanted to tell my story,” she said. “I’ve always had people come up to me about my story, but I just didn’t feel it.”
After her Olympic career, Babashoff settled into a quiet life as a mail carrier and concentrated on raising her son, Adam, as a single mother.
It was coincidence that brought Babashoff and Epting together. One of Babashoff’s customers along her route was Louise Epting, the mother of the co-author.
Babashoff knew that Epting was a writer and one day asked Louise if her son would sign one of his books for Adam.
Epting recalls as they were making arrangements, “She said, ‘Maybe one day you’ll tell my story.’ I said, ‘Why, sure.’ As a writer, everyone has a story. I said, ‘Who are you,’ She said, ‘Shirley Babashoff.’ I was, like, wait, what? My mother hit the floor too. She’s a sports fan.”
In fact, the Eptings had traveled to Montreal in 1976 and had seen one of Babashoff’s races.
In her upcoming book, Babashoff includes an open letter to Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee president, asking that the East Germans from that era be stripped of their medals. Her book also contains what Babashoff feels the medals table from 1976 would look like. What should have been.
Going into the 1976 Games, Babashoff was one of the hottest things in American sports in a country bursting with Bicentennial fervor.
In Long Beach at the Olympic Trials, she won all three freestyle races and the 400 individual medley, while setting three American records in the preliminaries, three more in the finals and a world record.
How good was Babashoff? During the last day of racing, Babashoff said she was so hungry that she jumped out of the pool between races and ran across the street to Jack in the Box. She wolfed down a Jumbo Jack, fries and a Coke before returning to win the 800-meter freestyle – in world-record time.
In the Olympics, however, she was stymied by Kornelia Ender and Petra Thumer in three world record-setting swims. When Babashoff accused the East Germans of cheating, her claims were dismissed or mocked.
“No one except Shirley had the guts to come out and say it,” Epting said. “And for that she was described as shrill and angry.”
Babashoff remembers chafing when being asked a question that downplayed her silver medals.
“I asked ‘How many silver medals have you won?’” she said of her response. “I did my best time and I swam against someone who was obviously cheating. How would you feel? I guess it’s easier to call someone a name than to know what I went through.”
Few at the time questioned the East German swimmers, even though that team went from no gold medals in 1972 to 10 of a possible 12 in 1976.
In swimming, where victories come in fractions of a second, Babashoff said of the East Germans, “They were beating us by five seconds and getting out of the pool like it was nothing.”
Even though the cheating wasn’t unveiled until the downfall of the Soviet Union, it was blatantly obvious to Babashoff.
“What part of deep voices and mustaches don’t you get?” she said.
There was one shining exception to the East German dominance in 1976. In what has been called one of the greatest races in American swimming, Babashoff swam the anchor leg of the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, and held off her East German counterpart to win the race in world-record time.
“Everyone came over to hug us,” Babashoff recalled, suggesting that even though its wasn’t spoken of, everyone knew of the cheating.
And so, in the final race of Shirley Babashoff’s Olympic career, what should have been, was.