Babashoff, Shirley

views updated


(b. 31 January 1957 in Whittier, California), versatile swimmer who broke many U.S. and world long-and short-distance records and was the all-time Olympic medal leader among U.S. women until 2000.

Babashoff was one of four children of Jack Babashoff, a machinist, and Vera Slivkoff, a homemaker. Her father, a second-generation Russian immigrant, had been a swimming instructor in Hawaii and always wanted his own children to become Olympians. Although he may have laid out the blueprint for the future of his children, his wife carried out the plan by driving her kids to and from training sessions and taking care of almost everything else. "It was through my mom's saving everything that we afforded swimming," recalled Babashoff. All four Babashoff kids began swimming training at an early age, and every one became an excellent swimmer. Jack Babashoff, Jr., the oldest, won the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle race at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Billy swam on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), team. Babashoff's younger sister, Debbie, was a national 1,500-meter freestyle champion in 1986.

Babashoff started swimming competitively at age nine but did not show signs of future greatness until she was thirteen, when she began setting age-group records under Flip Darr, her coach at the Huntington Beach Aquatic Club. Later Babashoff made a major career move by joining the Mission Viejo Nadadores Swim Club, where she blossomed under coach Mark Schubert, meeting his most demanding challenges. It was Schubert who made Babashoff into one of the most versatile swimmers in the world, capable of competing at the highest level in both distances and sprints as well as in individual medleys. By age fifteen, when Babashoff made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, she was already one of the best women's freestyle swimmers in the United States.

The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich provided the venue in which Babashoff began to establish her international dominance. When she entered the Games, she already held both the 200-meter freestyle and the 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay world records. Her pursuit of individual gold medals failed, however. In the 200-meter freestyle race, Babashoff broke her own world record but came in second to another fifteen-year-old phenomenon, Shane Gould of Australia. In the 100-meter freestyle race Babashoff beat Gould, the world record— holder, but lost the event to her teammate Sandra Neilson. Babashoff's first Olympic gold medal came when she anchored the winning U.S. team in the 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay.

Returning home without an individual gold medal was a disappointment, but Babashoff was not discouraged. In addition to attending Fountain Valley (California) High School (she graduated in 1974), she resumed her training with Mark Schubert, setting even higher goals for the 1976 Olympics. In addition to freestyle, Babashoff devoted substantial time to the other three strokes and to strength training. The results were phenomenal. Between the two Olympics, Babashoff developed into an all-around world-class swimmer. In May 1975, at the Western Olympic Development Meet, Babashoff easily swept the 100-, 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races and the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys. During this period, she also broke the world records for the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle and won in both 200- and 400-meter freestyle competitions at the 1973 and 1975 World Swimming Championships.

The U.S. Olympic women's swimming team entered the 1976 Montreal Olympics as favorites only to see their dreams shattered. In world-record time, Babashoff slammed into final wall after final wall and found larger, more muscular athletes of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) already there. Female swimmers of the GDR had never before won Olympic golds, yet in Montreal they rolled over the rest of the world, taking eleven gold medals in the first twelve events and setting eight world records. The U.S. women redeemed some dignity by winning the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, the last women's swimming event, barely averting their first Olympic gold medal shutout in a quarter-century. As in 1972 Babashoff anchored the relay team. In addition to the relay gold medal, she brought home four silver medals in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle competitions and in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay.

Babashoff did become the center of attention at the Games, at least for a few moments. Before the Montreal Olympics, many suspected that the East German swimmers were using steroids, but Babashoff was the only one who expressed this opinion publicly. After winning the freestyle relay, Babashoff refused to accept the congratulations of the GDR swimmers on the victory stand on this basis, drawing criticism from the public and the media. As a result, a large segment of the press called her "Surly Shirley." She was, however, later vindicated by the revelation that thousands of GDR athletes, including Olympic swimmers, were trained on steroids.

Steroids, if they were in fact used, were not the worst problem Babashoff encountered in Montreal. "Three weeks before the most important meet of your life, the [U.S.] Olympic staff takes your personal coach away and gives you another one," said Babashoff. "I was given some ridiculous practices, like 5 x 1,500 [meters] when I was to race the sprints." She believed that she could have won more gold medals had she kept her personal coach, Mark Schubert. "I feel worse about that than about the drugs. I could've beaten the East Germans anyway with Mark."

Babashoff's Olympic career ended with the conclusion of the Montreal Games. She enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 1976 but left school after her freshman year. Not bound by any eligibility rules to compete as an amateur, Babashoff was free to accept a four-year endorsement contract of $20,000 a year from Arena, a swimsuit manufacturer. Babashoff got married in 1978 but was divorced in 1980. She never remarried. Babashoff taught and coached swimming in various places in the Los Angeles area and in South Korea. After the birth of her son, Adam, in 1986, she took a job as a mail carrier in Huntington Beach, California.

During her competitive career, Babashoff managed to set eleven world records (six individuals and five relays) and thirty-nine U.S. records (seventeen individuals and twenty-two relays). She also accumulated two gold and six silver Olympics medals. For these achievements, Babashoff was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1982 and into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1987.

Notable articles on Babashoff include Kenny Moore, "Babashoff and Ender," Sports Illustrated (13 July 1992), and Mark Merfeld, "Babashoff: One Hamburger, French Fries, and a Couple World Records …To Go," Swimming World 16 (July 1975). For an overview of her Olympic swimming career, see David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (1984). Additional information about Babashoff is available at the International Swimming Hall of Fame website at See also "Babashoff Swims to Fourth Berth," New York Times (21 June 1976).

Ying Wushanley