International Women’s Day: Debbie Meyer & Memories Of Momentum & Magnitude

2021-03-08 Reading Time: 10 minutes
Debbie Meyer
Debbie Meyer, triple Olympic champion of 1968 who is still winning awards for the sample she sets - Image courtesy of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Northern California

International Women’s Day (IWD): a fine moment to highlight the achievements and work of women pioneers and pathfinders in swimming, including triple-gold legend of the 1968 Olympics, Debbie Meyer story. Over the course of the day, SOS will roll out a package of features on legends and high achievers in women’s swimming and how and why they spoke and speak the Swimming Voice. Some of the issues speak to the challenges rooted in the failed governance of swimming and the patriarchal leadership at the helm of the sport’s regulator.

Our SOS International Women’s Day coverage so far today:

Debbie Meyer was just 16 when she raced to historic golds over 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle at the 1968 Olympic Games. She raced in the days when there were no meets in between the highlight once every four years. By 1972, she had retired and did not defend the titles, two of which went to a new legend in the making, Australian Shane Gould.

Meyer’s swimming story transcends her racing days and includes the swim school that has taught many generations of kids to be safe in water and benefit from the fun, the fitness and, for some, the first stroke on the pathway to performance sport.

To add to her many honours down the years, Debbie Meyer, now 68, received the Mensch Award of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California in 2014. The award, says JSHoF, is “given to a non-Jewish individual who best exemplifies the high ideals we have come to expect from the leaders of our own Jewish community.” Here is the interview conducted with Debbie Meyer on that occasion:

And are some highlights from the Debbie Meyer story told through memory of her ascendancy in swimming 50 years on, back in 2017, and an interview with her back in 2007:

From the SwimVortex archive:

2017 – Marking The 50th Anniversary of A Stellar 1967 Season For A Star Ascending

What a summer it was for Debbie Meyer, one of the all-time greats of swimming: 1967. It started with a world record of 9:35.8 over 800m free for the American on July 9, 1967, on the way to an 18:11.1 pioneering mark over 1500m.  That 800m mark would be reduced to 9:22.9 just 20 days later, two days after she had set her first 400m global standard, on 4:32.6, a 4:29.0 following 22 days later.  To polish of a record-breaking run of  six global standards in less than six weeks, Meyer  delivered the first sub-18mins effort over 30 laps: 17:50.2, this weekend 50 years ago.

Meyer ended up breaking four 1500m records and 15 global standards on freestyle over 200m, 400m, 800m and 30 laps.

The 1500m record of 17.50.2 came 45 years almost to the day after Helen Wainwright had got the official world-record for 1500m rolling with a 25mins 06.6 effort on August 19, 1922.

Back in 2007 …

Meeting Debbie Meyer – 2007 the morning after the ISHOF dinner

Debbie Meyer – all images, Sacramento Hall of Fame video stills

Having stuck to the gentleman’s code of never asking a lady to reveal her age, it was only while waiting at 4.30am for our lift to the airport to arrive outside the hotel in Fort Lauderdale that I put time, date and history together to realise that Debbie Meyer looks at the very least a decade younger than her years.

Beyond the athletic cut, the mind is keen, the killer instinct alive and kicking in a 1968 triple Olympic champion who dominated events in Mexico City and held more world records over 200 and 400m freestyle than any other woman ever has done.

Commenting on what a struggle it had been to get my bags packed and get down in time a few hours after the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s annual gala dinner had waved everyone goodbye, Meyer looked up, not a hint of the bedraggled about her, and said coolly in a soft Californian drawl: “Yeah, I knew it’d be like that, so I got everything done last night before the dinner.”

Life skills, entrenched disciplines, all still burning bright in a woman who describes herself as being “probably in best shape of my life since I quit swimming”. The only doubt is in the word probably.

Debbie Meyer trained at Arden Hills in Sacramento with the club owner and a man who would be 1968 and 1972 US Olympic head coach, Sherm Chavoor, mentor to Mark Spitz, both as an age-grouper and then again when the man who would win a record seven Olympic gold was kicked off the Santa Clara squad by George Haines (a man with plenty of his own coaching lessons in wisdom and strength).

Chavoor had a reputation, like so many leading coaches, for being a hard taskmaster but Meyer knew a different, decent man.

“Everyone considered him a Simon Legree [Legree is the vicious slave-driving plantation owner of author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s imagination in the classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an 1852 book that had a profound effect on American attitudes towards slavery and contributed to the environment that gave rise to the American Civil War], but you know he had a heart of gold and you worked for him, you respected him. If he said ‘jump’, you said ‘how high’.”

He had a soft-spot for Debbie Meyer too: “He loved us all as swimmers and I know that a lot of kids on the team thought he loved me more and when they wanted something they’d ask me ‘you go ask him’ and I would. I’d jump through hoops for him. I was young, just 13 when we moved there (Sacramento), not for swimming but because my father was transferred there with Campbell’s Soup.”

Day one of Chevoor’s tutelage had Meyer looking for somewhere else to spend her time. “I was ready to walk out, ready to quit. I came from a programme in a 4-lane 25-yard pool that did 500 yards a day. We had 80 girls on the team and not much swimming got done. That first day I could only manage maybe 500 yards, and did 100 yards. I was ready to give up but that night my mom said ‘you know, you’re not going to stay home and watch TV all the time’, so I decided to give it another try and day after day after day …”

Meyer rolls one hand over the other, indicating that as the days passed, she began to thrive on the routine and the work.

“Within three months I was up to 5,000 yards a day practice and there was a lot of determination, dedication and desire in me and that makes people successful. And he (Chevoor) brought it out of me.”

And how. Meyer was named Deborah Elizabeth when she was born on August 14, 1952 in Annapolis, Maryland. Sixteen years on she became the first swimmer to win three Olympic golds in individual events at one Games, over 200, 400 and 800m freestyle, all in Olympic records.

Altitude and a severe stomach complaint prevented Meyer, an asthma sufferer, from being at her fastest on the clock in Mexico, though in pure race terms, she crushed her opponents, the 11-second advantage she held over 16 laps remaining the biggest winning margin over 800m in Olympic history. Her career bests were 4:24.3, the 1970 world record over 400m, and 9:10.4, the global standard in 1968.

Debbie Meyer was voted “World Swimmer of the Year” in 1967, 1968, 1969, was the 1968 Sullivan Award winner, the first woman to swim 1500m under 18 minutes, the first under 4:30 over 400m. She held 24 US records.

In the seven years up to the 1968 Olympic Games, Meyer estimates that she swam 30,000 miles (though she admits never keeping a written record of anything), setting training standards unprecedented at the time and in doing so, taking women’s swimming to places few had then imagined possible: her 4:24.5 400m, for example, would have beaten Murray Rose at the 1956 Olympics, while her 17:19.9 1500m would have whacked the Aussie legend by 39 seconds.

Meyer talks of the three D’s of her early career and the three M’s (she notes how appropriate the acronym is to her name) that she has added to her portfolio of wisdom over the years: desire, determination and dedication are what brought her success, the legacy of which is caught up in Olympic memories, momentum and magnitude of the message being passed on to generations that flow from one to the next in the world’s only true aquatic superpower, taken in the context of the consistency of success over many decades.

The coach-swimmer relationship was also critical, she says. Chevoor was a coach who couldn’t swim. “He could probably save himself in the shallow end,” laughed Meyer. But it mattered not a jot what the coach was capable of in water. The strength of a man who flew 35 successful missions over Europe in WWII rested in his motivation to move on. “He was a very driven person,” said Meyer.

Chavoor, millionaire owner of the Arden Hills Swimming and Tennis Club, coached his charges to 83 world records and 131 American records. In 1968 and 1972 alone, Arden Hills produced 16 gold, two silvers and three bronzes at the Olympics, at the helm, Spitz, Meyer and Mike Burton.

The other essential element in Meyer’s mix was an unbending will to do what she was doing. It is a rare gene, one that in pure swimming terms she did not pass on to her two children, Carly, 23, and Colin, 21, who paddled for a while before dipping out into other sports and realms of life, while stepdaughter Rachel, 20, is proving to be the most athletic of the three.

“Carly was a fabulous swimmer she still has feel for water, her stroke looks like mine. My son is a good breaststroke swimmer, but I have nothing to say to him because I can’t do breaststroke worth beans,” says Meyer.

“They just didn’t have the drive, the desire to go out and do that. People say ‘why didn’t you drive them’? But they’re the ones who have to go out and get to workout like I did. My parents always told me ‘you’re the one who has to get up, go swim and go workout. You decide when to quit. It’s not our sport, at least not their choice.”

And when it stopped being hers, she stopped swimming. Accepted wisdom holds Meyer’s retirement date as somewhere in the middle of the Olympic cycle in 1970. In fact it was January 1972, the month in which Shane Gould broke the world 100m record that she had shared for eight months with Dawn Fraser – within a 12-month period in which Gould launched an assault on the record books, setting new standards over every distance from 100 to 1,500m.

Shane Gould (NTCL Archive)
Dawn Fraser with the kids who can swim – she wants the ones who can’t to learn – courtesy of Swim Australia

It was in fact Karen Moras who overhauled Meyer’s records, before Gould took the lead and went on to clock the first sub-4min 20sec 400m freestyle at the Munich Games of 1972, a time of 4:19.04 winning her one of three gold out of five individual medals.

Was the onset of such talent responsible for Meyer’s decision? No, said the breaker of 15 of her own world long-course records from 200m to 1,500m (no woman has held as many global standards over 200 and 400m as Meyer did, at five for each distance). “I got out of practice one day and I thought ‘I’m not enjoying this anymore’, and that was that. I was nineteen and a half, I kinda knew where I was in my life, and I was ready to try other things.”

Meyer was hired as an expert for the Associated Press agency at the Munich Olympic Games, while “Sherm got me into village by getting me a US shirt – that was how lax it was back then. I absolutely loved it”. Did she watch Gould and wonder, what if? “No … when I lost the drive, I knew I wouldn’t be succsessful and I knew it was time to let someone on the team who is hungry have the stage.”

The journey down from the Olympian Heights (quite literally in the case of Mexico) was not all-plain sailing. A week after informing Chevoor of her decision, Meyer went skiing, enjoyed it and went back for more, only to break an ankle. “I had a cast on my leg for three months,” Meyer recalls. “I ate for three months too, and didn’t exercise a lot. I ballooned up to 180lbs.”

It was while in that lapsed condition that Debbie Meyer started to coach a local swim team in her home town of Sacramento. The wake-up call rang in her head as she delivered a healthy message to local parents: “I was saying, ‘look, get your kids into sport, its great for their health’, but there was this two-tonne Tilly standing in front of them.”

The skills that had served her so well in life had slipped.

“So, I got back into a routine of taking care of myself and not wallowing in ‘woe is me, what do I do now, people want to know me for what I did, not who I am now’. I think a lot of athletes go through that, the ones that are successful. When I was at UCLA, I definitely felt that. I hated LA (Los Angeles). I loved the school, but I hated LA. I moved back to Sacramento.”

And that is where you will find her today, running the Debbie Meyer Swim School at Carmichael, just two miles from the Arden Hill pool in which she trained her way to sporting immortality. The point of the school is not, she notes, to “breed Olympic champions … I want kids safe in the water, I want adults safe in the water”.

The school was born out of adversity. “I was coaching out of California State University at Sacramento when they decided to cut the team. Suddenly I was an unemployed single mum. My grandmother died, I got divorced, Sherman died and I found myself unemployed – all in a six-week period,” Meyer explained.

“So, you know, I used everything I learned from swimming to make the school successful. Swimming teaches you life skills: from the get go, you’re learning as an age grouper things you wouldn’t learn elsewhere. The journey into it isn’t regimented. I like all the leisure, recreation-round sports, they get kids in to give them a taste, to see what they like.”

Meyer’s first swim lesson was to an autistic girl. The champion found the experience “very rewarding”, and right now she is working with adaptive swimmers. “I have worked with special Olympic kids, spina bifida kids, blind children, cerebral palsy kids … they can all drown just as easily as other people.” She is delighted to hear the tale of Australian open-water swimmer Susie Maroney, who recently revealed that she and her twin brother were born with cerebral palsy but kept the condition in abeyance through swimming.

Debbie Meyer – the first and only woman to win three solo Olympic freestyle titles – images, stills from the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Sacramento Hall of Fame

Meyer takes to the water for her own sake still to this day. She even returned to a starting block for the world masters championships in Perth but is not one of those who takes it all very seriously. “I trained at Stanford for six weeks to get fit and had a ball. People I swam against in Mexico cleaned my clock but I didn’t care. I had a ball. My sprint times are not that far off what I did when I was younger but the distance times, well … “.

Asked to name the highlight of her swimming life, she replies: “That’s really hard. Donna (de Verona) and Claudia Kolb did two Olympics and that was an amazing thing back then. In the Sixties we had one international competition a year if we were lucky. My whole career was special because I did it because I loved it. I was inducted in the National High School Hall of Fame recently but I didn’t swim in college because there was no swim programme for girls in those days. I still get honours and every one has a special place because it comes at a very different stage of your life.”

She may not wish to say it – and it appears not to be in her nature to be boastful – but she clearly holds very dear indeed the memory of her Olympic achievements, one to be found on her car licence plate: 3GOLD68.

“Its been such a rewarding life,” says Meyer. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” She glances down the hall as guests arrive for the Hall of Fame dinner. Donna De Varona, Mickey King, coach Jack Nelson, former Hall of Fame president, author and historian Buck Dawson, current CEO doing much to revitalise the Hall, Bruce Wigo. Penny Heyns breezes past looking like a million dollars on legs. Old friends, new friends.

“God, she looks so gorgeous,” says Debbie Meyer with a deep smile. “I love all of this. I love reminiscing. I never put anything down on paper, didn’t keep diaries, so it’s wonderful jogging my senior moment memory. It’s great fun to go back. Its what life’s about. We’re family.”

More Memories

Meyer’s World-Record Vault:

200m free
2:06.7Debbie MeyerAugust 24, 1968
 400m free
4:32.6Debbie Meyer27 Jul 1967
4:29.0Debbie Meyer18 Aug 1967
4:26.7Debbie Meyer1 Aug 1968
4:24.5Debbie Meyer25 Aug 1968
4:24.3Debbie Meyer20 Aug 1970
 800m free
9:35.8Debbie MeyerJul 9, 1967
9:22.9Debbie MeyerJul 29, 1967
9:19.0Debbie MeyerJul 21, 1968
9:17.8Debbie MeyerAug 4, 1968
9:10.4Debbie MeyerAug 28, 1968
1500m free
25:06.6Helen WainwrightAug 19, 1922
18:11.1Debbie MeyerJul 9, 1967
17:50.2Debbie MeyerAug 20, 1967
17:31.2Debbie MeyerAug 21, 1968
17:19.9Debbie MeyerAug 17, 1969

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