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The Incomparable Mary T Meagher (Pool #523)

9 July 2022

There are some swims that are legendary, swims that were either so far ahead of their time or swims that broke through time barriers that the community, at the time, thought were either impossible or, at the least, very, very hard to do. Swims the equivalent of Bob Beamon’s 1968 long jump (which took 23 years to be broken) or Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute running mile.

Many swimmers steeped in the sport can rattle off some of the “barrier breaking” swims such as …

  • Johnny Weismuller breaking 1:00 in the 100 meter freestyle in 1922

  • Vladimir Salnikov breaking 15:00 in the 1,500 meter freestyle 58 years later at the 1980 Moscow Olympics

  • And, more recently, Federica Pelligrini becoming the first woman under 4:00 in the 400 meter freestyle (2009)

What gets lost in the collective memory, though, are some of those “swims ahead of their times” results, achievements that were clearly so far ahead of the training, technology and talent of the day that they stood unmatched for decades, such as:

  • Jeff Kostoff’s 500 yard freestyle high school record, which stood over 35 years from 1983 (4:16.39) to 2019 (4:15.63, Jake Magahey)

  • Cynthia "Sippy" Woodhead’s 200 meter freestyle time done in 1978 at age 14 (1:58.53) stood as the fastest time for a 13-14 year old girl for over 40 years. Canadian Summer McIntosh finally bested it in May of 2021, 43 years later!

I contend that one of the greatest such “swims ahead of the times” was Mary T Meagher’s 1981 2:05.96 200 meter butterfly swim from USA Long Course Nationals in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Long before technical suits when Mary T swam in a basic lycra suit without goggles -

... she swam a time that was unrivaled for decades. All one has to do is look at the Top 3 times from this year’s (yes, 2022) World Swimming Championships:

  1. 2:05.20 Summer McIntosh, Canada

  2. 2:06.08 Hali Flickinger, USA

  3. 2:06.32 Zhang Yufei, China

... to see that her time from over 40 years ago is still relevant today. In fact, if you go back to every Olympics since she stopped competing, you see that Mary T’s world record time would have medaled in most years:

Year Winning Time Mary T’s Effective Place

2021 2:03.86 4th

2016 2:04.85 5th

2012 2:04.06 5th

2008 2:04.18 3rd (tech suits introduced)

2004 2:06.05 1st

2000 2:05.88 2nd

1996 2:07.76 1st

1992 2:08.67 1st

I grew up swimming in the 70’s and 80’s and certainly knew of her greatness then, but was reminded of this earlier this year when I happened to be in Louisville for a conference. Knowing that the Mary T Meagher Aquatic Center was in her growing up hometown …

… I did a little prep work for my visit, listening to the Champion’s Mojo Podcast and reviewing some online history such as this recent video where she describes breaking her first world record,

I only made it over to this pool for one swim, but it left me wanting to come back to Louisville. While humble from the outside and with a notable lack of any kind of summary of her immense accomplishments save this tiny photo hung high on the wall near the entrance, the pool itself is a swimmer's and swim community's multi-functional dream of a training center.

  • 50 meters long

  • 11 lanes (yes, these (lanes) goes to 11!)

  • But the pièce de résistance is the bulkhead which, with the 11 lanes, allowed them to have three courses at once: a 6 lane 25 yard course, a 6 lane 25 meter course and a 5 lane, 50 meter course.

I was doing a taper workout, so I didn't get to sample all three dimensions, but someday I will. I still think there should be more educational material to impress up the local swim-citizenry of just how great Mary T's accomplishments were, but the pool is a fitting tribute to one of the world's best ever:


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