America's first distance darling back in pool | August 4, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - August 4, 2006

America's first distance darling back in pool

Olympic champion Debbie (Meyer) Weber making her Masters debut in FINA Championships at Stanford

by Rick Eymer

Debbie Weber thought she could sneak into the FINA World Masters Championships, being held beginning today and continuing through August 17 at Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center, without much fanfare. No such luck.

Then known as Debbie Meyer, she began setting the standard for women swimmers in the early 60s with a training regime unheard of at the time. She swam 30,000 miles in the seven years leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where she became the first American woman to win three individual gold medals at one Olympics.

She didn't get the chance to repeat that performance in 1972. She was forced to retire with recurring bursitis in her left shoulder. Her final competitive meet was the 1971 Nationals in Houston.

Until now that it.

"I just hope I can get to the end of the pool and I won't need my dad to pull me out at the end," said Meyer, who began training for this event two months ago and worked herself up to 3,000 meters a day. "To be honest I'm more nervous swimming here than I was in Mexico City. Coming back here brings a flood of memories. It reminds me so much of the Olympic experience."

A career that began at age six continues into her 50s. Along the way Meyer set 15 world records and held 24 American records (and was a part of three American relay team records). She was the first woman to swim 1,500 meters in less than 18 minutes and the first to swim under 4:30 in the 400 meters.

Meyer was named woman Athlete of the Year by TASS, the Soviet news agency, in 1967 and was named the Sullivan Award winner for amateur Athlete of the Year in 1968. Associated Press anointed her woman Athlete of the Year in 1969.

Meyer, the world's greatest female swimmer between 1967-70, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977.

Of her early exploits, Meyer said she was completely unaware of how she pioneered the sport.

"If the coach (Sherman Chavoor) said jump I said, 'how high?' Meyer said. "I had no clue. I knew nothing about swimming. I had to ask, 'What are the Olympics?' I had no idea about the entire realm of the Olympics until 1966. I couldn't break 30 in the 50 yards until I was almost 13. A year later I'm in the nationals. Somehow Sherm was able to press that button. I was in the right place at the right time."

Meyer earned her first prized possession on Christmas Day, 1964. Her father, who has officiated swimming for the past 52 years and remains fully involved at age 82 ("I turned 41 for the second time," he said.), gave her a stop watch with the engraving, 'Mexico City, 1968,' prompting her to ask what that meant.

Her father gave her the watch after she finished a 25-yard fly race in 16.2.

"I just wanted a stop watch because I liked to time my friends," said Meyer, who is entered in the 50 free ("I'll probably finish dead last," she said. "Some things never change."), the 100 free, the 200 free, the 400 free and the 800 free.

"Thank God they don't have a 1,500," she said. "This is my first big competition since I quit. I kept wondering how I did it. Then I realized it was because dad paid for everything."

Leonard Meyer swam most of his life and wife Betty was a diver. He still has the first medal he was awarded — a small silver medal he won for a Knights of Columbus 40-yard free, 80-pounds-and-under competition.

Originally from Baltimore (Debbie Meyer was born at the Naval Academy), the family moved to Sacramento when Campbell's Soup transferred Leonard. One of Debbie's earliest swim coaches on the east coast was Jack Kelly (who had a famous sister named Grace).

"We knew about George Haines at Santa Clara and Jack told us about Sherman," said Leonard. "When we met Sherman for the first time, he already knew about Debbie. Jack Kelly told him 'don't let her get away.'"

Meyer became an avid golfer and skier in addition to swimming. Her golf partners are Billy Kilmer and Ken Stabler. She participated in John Madden's tournament and was paired with Daryle Lamonica. Meyer continues to help out at as many golf charities as possible.

Stanford grad Anne Cribbs, also an Olympian, serves as the Executive Director for the FINA Masters World Championships Organizing Committee and just may get back in the pool. She's entered in the 50 free on Saturday.

"It's still to be determined," she said.

The event has been in the works since before receiving the bid for it in March of 2004.

"This is an awesome place to stage a meet," Organizing Committee Chairman Michael Moore said of Stanford.

Swimming competition — involving 5,491 swimmers between the ages of 25 and 95 — begins today.

Water polo competition starts Sunday with 980 competitors, Open Water competition is next Friday at Robert Crown Beach in Alameda, synchronized swimming and diving starts next Sunday, Aug. 13.

A total of 7,275 competitors representing 75 countries will converge at Stanford and the Bay Area during the two-week event.