Meagher, Mary T.
Mary T. Meagher
Olympic and championship swimmer Mary T. Meagher (pronounced MAW-her), known as
"Madame Butterfly," began setting world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly swim as a young teen. Thwarted in her prime by the United States' 1980 Olympics boycott, Meagher one year later set world records in the butterfly that stood for nearly two decades. After competing in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, she retired from swimming with twenty-two U.S. championships, two world championships, and three Olympic gold medals. Her record in the 100-meter butterfly remained unbroken until 1999, when five-time Olympic gold medalist Jenny Thompson bested it with a swim of 57.88—.05 second ahead of Meagher's. Her world record in the 200-meter butterfly stood until 2000, when Australian champion swimmer Susan O'Neill broke it with a time of 2:05.81—.15 second ahead of Meagher's. O'Neill said she had tried for six years to break Meagher's record; she called doing so "one of the greatest moments of my life."
"The Butterfly Picked Me"
Mary Terstegge Meagher was born October 27, 1964, in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of Jim and Floy Terstegge Meagher. She grew up with nine sisters and one brother. One of her sisters was Mary Glen, so Mary was called Mary T.—or simply "T." She began swimming at age five, and by age twelve she had a world-class butterfly stroke. It came naturally, she said. She didn't pick the butterfly—it picked her.
Nicknamed Fishy by her school friends, at age fourteen, Mary began winning national and international titles. In 1979, as an eighth grader, she beat the world record of 2:09.77 in the 200-meter butterfly by .1 second at the Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The world could hardly believe that a fresh-faced teen with braces and a stuffed frog named Bubbles could swim so fast.
|1964||Born October 27 in Louisville, Kentucky|
|1969||Begins swimming, at age 5|
|1976||Is practicing like a world-class swimmer, with the butterfly her best stroke|
|1979||Sets first world record, at Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, winning gold medal in 200-meter butterfly as an eighth grader; breaks her own world record at Long-Course Senior National Swimming Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, earning her the nickname "Madame Butterfly"|
|1980||Sets 100-meter butterfly world record at Indoor National Swimming Championships, breaking East German Andrea Pollack's record; at U.S. mock Olympic Trials, makes team for 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, one freestyle swim, and two relays; U.S. President Jimmy Carter imposes boycott on 1980 Olympics in Moscow, dashing Meagher's Olympic hopes—she nearly gives up swimming|
|1981||Wins gold medal in 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly at national long-course championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, setting new records, at age 16|
|1982||Enters University of California; wins one gold and one silver medal at World Championships|
|1983||Wins gold medal at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships|
|1984||Wins three gold medals at 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, boycotted in turn by Eastern-bloc countries; wins three gold medals at national indoor championships|
|1985||Wins six gold medals in U.S. national competitions|
|1986||Wins gold medal in NCAA championships; wins one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal at World Championships|
|1987||Wins gold medal at NCAA championships; takes five months off from swimming to work as teacher's aide; graduates from University of California with a degree in early childhood development; Mary T. Meagher Aquatic Center in Louisville, Kentucky, is opened in Meagher's honor|
|1988||Wins 200-meter butterfly at Olympic Trials; wins one silver and one bronze medal at Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea; retires from swimming, with a total of twenty-two U.S. championships and two world championships|
|1991||Serves on U.S. Olympic Committee as an athletes' representative|
|1993||Inducted into two swimming halls of fame|
|1996||Is chosen to be an Olympic flag bearer at the Games in Atlanta, Georgia|
|1999||Jenny Thompson breaks Meagher's 100-meter butterfly record at Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney, Australia|
|2000||Meagher's 200-meter butterfly world record is finally broken, by Australian swimmer Susan O'Neill, at the Australian Swimming Championships in Sydney|
About one month after the Pan Am Games, at the 1979 Long-Course Senior National Swimming Championships, Meagher broke her own world record in the morning preliminaries, swimming the 200-meter in 2:08.41. Coming back for the evening finals, she shattered that record with a time of 2:07.01. The fourteen-year-old girl swam a faster butterfly than nearly half of the men in the competition.
Setting her sights on the 1980 Olympic Games, Meagher broke another world record—in the 100-meter butterfly—at the 1980 Indoor National Swimming Championships, with a time of 59.26, .2 faster than German Olympic gold medalist Andrea Pollack's. By this time, Meagher had earned a new nickname: Madame Butterfly.
Olympics Only a Dream, but Meagher Sets Records
Meagher made the U.S. Olympic team for the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and for one freestyle race. At her peak, she was prepared for the 1980 Olympics, but her hopes were crushed along with those of many other American athletes when President Jimmy Carter issued a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Later learning that she could have beaten the winners' time, Meagher was so downhearted she nearly gave up swimming. Instead, the following year she unleashed her Olympic energy at the Long-Course Senior National Swimming Championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, setting a world record in the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 57.93. She also won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly, setting a world record of 2:05.96 and finishing fifteen meters ahead of the second-place winner. The audience gave Madame Butterfly a standing ovation.
1984 Olympics and Beyond
Meagher entered the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982. She won a number of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming championships. When the time came for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—under a Communist boycott that included tough East German teams—Meagher had trained hard. She made the U.S. team in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and the 4 × 100 medley relay. At the Olympics, she won a gold medal in each event. Afterward, she won gold in the Indoor Championships and in the Short- and Long-Course Championships. In 1986, she won a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal in the World Championships. In 1987 she was named Outstanding Female College Athlete of the Year and won the Honda Sports Award for the second time during her college career.
Olympics Bound Again
Meagher took five months off from swimming the year she graduated from college, to work as a teacher's aide and have a normal life. However, as the 1988 Olympics approached, she began training hard, at age twenty-three. This time, she would get to compete against the East German swimmers, and she also had hopes of breaking her own 200-meter record. To her disadvantage, she would be competing against teenagers, ever reminded that she was just sixteen when she set her standing world records.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, Meagher won the bronze medal in the 200-meter butterfly and a silver for her butterfly leg in the 400-meter medley relay. Disappointed that she did not set another world record, she was still ranked number one in the world for 1988 in the 200-meter butterfly.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1979||Gold medal, 200-meter butterfly, Pan American Games, with a time of 2:09.77, breaking world record by .09 second; broke this record in preliminaries at Long-Course Senior National Swimming Championships, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a time of 2:08.41; at finals on the same day, broke this record with a time of 2:07.01|
|1980||First place, set world record in 100-meter butterfly at Indoor National Swimming Championships, with a time of 59.26; at mock Olympic Trials in Irvine, California, reduced her 200-meter record to 2:06.37|
|1981||Gold medal, 100-meter butterfly, at Long-Course Senior National Swimming Championships, Brown Deer, Wisconsin, setting a world record with a time of 57.93; gold medal, 200-meter butterfly at same event, setting world record of 2:05.96|
|1982||Gold medal in 100-meter butterfly and silver medal in 200-meter butterfly at World Championships|
|1983||Gold medal, 200-meter butterfly, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships|
|1984||Gold medals in 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, and 4 × 100 medley relay at Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California; gold medals, 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter freestyle, Indoor National Swimming Championships|
|1985||Gold medal, 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, NCAA Championships; gold medals, 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, Short-Course Senior National Championships; gold medals, 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, Long-Course Senior National Championships; won Honda Sports Award for Swimming, for 1984-85 season|
|1986||Gold medal, 200-meter butterfly, NCAA Championships; gold medal in 200-meter butterfly, silver medal in 100-meter butterfly, bronze medal in 200-meter freestyle, World Championships|
|1987||Gold medal in 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, NCAA Championships; won Honda Sports Award for Swimming, for 1986-87 season|
|1988||Gold medal, 200-meter butterfly, national championships; won 200-meter butterfly at Sundown Swim to Seoul in Boca Raton, Florida; won 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly at Pepsi Open in Charlotte, North Carolina; silver medal in 400-meter medley relay and bronze medal in 200-meter butterfly at Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea|
|1993||Inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame; inducted into International Swimming Hall of Fame|
|2002||Inducted into the Bay Area (California) Sports Hall of Fame|
Meagher retired from competitive swimming soon after the 1988 Olympics with her world records intact. She worked at a bank in her native Louisville and then worked in private business through 1991. That year, she served as an athletes' representative for the U.S. Olympic Committee. When the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993, she was asked to be a flag bearer during the opening ceremonies. She lives in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, Georgia, with her husband, sports executive Michael Plant—a former U.S. Olympic speed skater—and their two children, Andrew and Madeline, whom she has taught to swim.
In May 2000, on hearing that Susan O'Neill had finally broken her 200-meter butterfly record and earned the nickname "Madame Butterfly" in her place, Mary T. Meagher Plant said, "You couldn't ask for a nicer, more deserving person to break your record than Susie." However, Plant said she still believes she could have completed the 200-meter in 2 minutes, 4 seconds. "When I did 2:05, the last 25 meters felt real easy," she told the Los Angeles Times. "At the finish, I thought, 'I'm not tired, I could have kept going.'"
Mary T. Meagher was a gifted swimmer whose speed and strength in the butterfly were unparalleled during her career and for many years afterward. Dennis Pursley, one of her former coaches, said that Meagher had no weaknesses in her prime. He told Sports Illustrated for Women, "Motivation, technique, physical attributes—I don't know that I've ever seen an athlete who didn't have a weakness on that list—except Mary."
Address: Mary Plant, 404 Vanderwall, Peachtree City, GA 30269.
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Sketch by Ann H. Shurgin