Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program
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In Shirley Babashoff’s extraordinary swimming career, she set thirty-seven national records and six world records. Prior to the 1990s, she was the most successful U.S. female Olympian and, in her prime, was widely considered the greatest female swimmer on the planet.
Heading into the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, Babashoff was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Hopes were high that she would become the “female Mark Spitz”—the American swimmer who returns home with a collection of gold medals.
All of that changed the moment Babashoff and her teammates arrived in Montreal. After dropping off their bags at their residences in the Olympic Village, the U.S. women’s swim team headed over to the swimming venue to get acquainted with the facility and participate in a light workout. As the women were changing in the locker room, they heard male voices on the other side of the lockers, and so they ran for the door. Babashoff found her coach and told him, “I think we are in the men’s locker room!”
After he assured Babashoff that they were in the women’s locker room, the team went back inside, peeked around the corner of the lockers, and received the shock of their lives: the male voices they had heard were actually coming from the East German female swimming team. It had only been one year since Babashoff last saw them, at the World Championships in Colombia—but they had all but transformed into men. Their voices were deep, their muscles made them look like bodybuilders, and some of them even had facial hair.
Getting on the bus to return to the Village, Babashoff was asked by reporters for her opinion of the East German team. She replied, “Well, except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine.”
The comment was the spark that lit the flame.
Babashoff made other similar remarks about the East German swimmers soon after, and the media vilified her as “Surly Shirley.” It was clear to her that the East Germans were doping, so she spoke out. However, Babashoff was punished for voicing her opinion against those who cheated.
Babashoff would go on to win four silver medals in individual events in the 1976 Olympics, as well as a gold medal as the anchor swimmer on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay—considered one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, ranking right up there with the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets in 1980.
During her time in the spotlight as a world champion and Olympic medalist, Babashoff was featured in Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and many other magazines, as well as all the major television networks and hundreds of newspapers. In 1989, the East German doping program was exposed to the world. In the ensuing decades, Babashoff has been pursued repeatedly by major media outlets and, to date, has declined to comment. But with Making Waves, she has decided to break her silence, to tell her story and help fight the culture of cheating in both amateur and professional sports.
At the heart of Making Waves is Babashoff’s deeply personal story, one that she has never shared in public. But it is part of a much bigger story—one about morality, politics, celebrity, and the win-at-any-cost mentality and its tragic impact on society. Making Waves weaves together four distinct narrative threads: Babashoff’s celebrated career as a champion swimmer on the international stage; the behind-the-scenes drama of her personal life; the story of doping in East Germany (the East German athletes themselves were the ultimate victims, developing a wide array of illnesses over the years as a result of the drugs they were forced to take); and the modern era of steroids and other performance-enhancing drug abuse that ensued after the 1976 Olympics.
From her difficult childhood growing up with an abusive father in Southern California in the 1960s, to her triumphs as the greatest female amateur swimmer in the world, to her first Olympic experience at the 1972 Munich Games, to the heartbreak of the 1976 Games and her subsequent retirement from competitive swimming, Making Waves displays all of the characteristics that made Babashoff both the greatest female swimmer of her time—and the most controversial. Unflinching, honest, and forthright, it is a story that is, unfortunately, more relevant today than at any other time in the history of competitive sports.