WORLD RECORD FLASHBACK: MARY T. MEAGHER AND A STANDARD DECADES AHEAD OF ITS TIME
by JOHN LOHN – EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
28 April 2023, 04:34am
World Record Flashback: Mary T. Meagher and a Standard Decades Ahead of Its Time
In this edition of World Record Flashback, we examine the historic 1981 world record of Mary T. Meagher in the 200-meter butterfly. When Madame Butterfly clocked 2:05.96 at the United States National Championships, she produced a standard that was years – even decades – ahead of its time.
More than 40 years have passed since, in relative quiet, a 16-year-old Mary T. Meagher delivered one of the greatest performances in the sport’s history. To make that statement is not hyperbole, as is often the case when specific moments are considered against time. No, in this case – and the facts serve as proof – historical defiance is the only way to properly classify what Meagher produced in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1981 United States National Championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin.
As Meagher climbed the blocks on August 13, the possibility of a world record certainly existed. After all, Meagher was the current record holder, having set four standards in the event between 1979 and 1980. Yet, when she surged through the water in 2:05.96, her competition battered, eyes could hardly fathom what the scoreboard offered. A sub-2:06 mark? Seriously? It wasn’t even 14 years earlier in which a man – some guy by the name of Mark Spitz – first breached the 2:06 barrier.
Three days later, Meagher broke the world record in the 100 butterfly, in the process becoming the first woman to go sub-59 AND sub-58 in the event, thanks to a swim of 57.93. Both standards endured for more than 18 years, but it is the record in the 200 butterfly which has best stood the test of time, its transcendence evident in the fact that it would have placed fourth at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. To reiterate, what Meagher managed in 1981 remains world class today.
“I was joyful, happy, all those words,” she once told Swimming World about her 200 butterfly record. “At that point, I was still taking my success for granted. I didn’t know I would never swim that fast again.”
On the road to that day in Wisconsin, Meagher experienced both joy and heartache in the sport. As a rising teenage phenom, she long seemed destined for greatness. She made her international breakthrough at the 1979 Pan American Games, where she won gold in the 200 butterfly and set her first world record, behind an effort of 2:09.77. The showing was supposed to be the precursor to the next summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow, where Meagher would be among the most-heralded athletes.
But instead of shining on the biggest stage, Meagher became a victim of politics, one of hundreds of American hopefuls robbed of their impending Olympic glory. In response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would boycott the Moscow Games. The decision left Meagher obviously stung, used as a political pawn.
At the Olympics, East Germany’s Caren Metschuck won gold in the 100 butterfly with a time that was a second slower than Meagher from a few months earlier. The gap was even more extraordinary in the 200 fly, as East German Ines Geissler won gold in Moscow in 2:10.44, more than four seconds slower than what Meagher clocked nine days later in Irvine, California. Had Meagher been in Moscow, gold would have been a certainty, her races primarily duels against the clock.
“I was feeling sorry for myself,” Meagher said of the boycott. “On the one hand, I feel so lucky, so blessed, that God chose me to have that surreal experience of winning and traveling the world. But the timing (of the boycott) wasn’t ideal. According to the times, I would have won in 1980.”
The boycott had varying impacts on the athletes who were affected. Some retired. Others had reached their prime. A handful were mentally devastated and opted for retirement. For Meagher, she was young enough to forge ahead and turn in the best performances of her career, most notably that spectacular world record in the 200 butterfly.
More, Meagher was in position to eventually receive her Olympic opportunity. Although her finest days were in the past by the time the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles rolled around, Meagher impressively captured titles at a home Games in the 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly, along with gold as a member of the American 400 medley relay. She even stayed in the sport long enough to add a bronze medal in the 200 fly at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
“I guess I’ll always envision them as a kind of heaven, sort of a dream world,” Meagher said of the 1984 Games. “Only this dream world was real.”
It took until 2000 for Meagher’s world record to go down, at the hands of Australian Susie O’Neill and her time of 2:05.81 at the Aussie Olympic Trials. Really, it was appropriate that O’Neill broke the record, as she had the mark in her sights for several years and is considered one of the greats in the history of the 200 butterfly. She, too, was given the nickname of Madame Butterfly.
Given its 18-year status as the world record, Meagher’s 2:05 marker stands out on its own. Still, some additional perspective reveals just how remarkable the performance was. The record was posted without any of the technological supports of the current age. No tech suit. No goggles. A pool not in touch with present-day standards for speed. Meagher’s world-record time not only would have qualified for every Olympic final through the current day, it would have medaled at every Olympics through the 2008 Games.
Despite a lack of exposure to the aforementioned advantages of the modern athlete, Meagher’s career-best outing would have scared the podium at the most-recent Olympics. In Tokyo, China’s Zhang Yufei was the runaway champion, a time of 2:03.86 comfortably beating silver medalist Regan Smith (2:05.30) and bronze medalist Hali Flickinger (2:05.65). The fact that Meagher’s world record of 1981 would have been in contention for hardware is a testament to the swim’s ahead-of-its-time nature.
In the other 200-meter distances, the existing world records of Meagher’s era would have been well out of touch. The 200 breaststroke would have been a bottom-five time in preliminaries in Tokyo while the 200 backstroke standard would not have advanced out of heats. Meanwhile, the 200 freestyle would have been 16th in prelims, narrowly advancing to the semifinals.
When digesting what Meagher accomplished, an initial reaction is awe. Nonetheless, Meagher once suggested she could have been faster.
“I always felt I could do a 2:04,” she once said. “When I did 2:05, I wasn’t pushed at all, and the last 25 meters felt real easy. At the finish, I thought, ‘I’m not tired, I could’ve kept on going.’”
Her legacy has.