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“Madame Butterfly” Mary T. Meagher Says Boycotts Altered Trajectory Of Her Career

By Karen Rosen | July 19, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Mary T. Meagher training on May 1, 1984 in Los Angeles.


Looking back on her swimming career, Mary T. Meagher still has regrets about the boycotts, but in the end she got the boy.

So, all in all, she came out ahead.

“I always say to people, ‘It led me to Mike,’ and I guess that was what it was meant to do,” Meagher said of her husband, Mike Plant, a 1980 Winter Olympian in speedskating.

Yet the two boycotts that marred her Olympic career leave the swimmer known as “Madame Butterfly” wondering what might have been.

Meagher was just 15 and the top female butterflier in the world when President Jimmy Carter instigated the boycott of the Olympic Games Moscow 1980. Meagher was poised to win gold medals in the two events in which she held the world record – the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter fly – as well as in the 4x100 medley.

“I heard rumblings, but didn’t take them seriously until April at nationals, when the vote happened,” Meagher said of the 1,704-697 decision by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was under pressure by the U.S. government and sponsors. “And I saw the people around me crying and outraged and I remember going, ‘Oh, this is really going to not happen.’”

The 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming were actually held during the Moscow Games, so results were easily compared.

“My coach, Denny Pursley, said, ‘We’re going to pretend that’s our Olympics now,’” Meagher said.

After Caren Metschuck led an East German sweep in the Olympic 100-meter fly, winning in 1:00.42, Meagher topped that by going 59:41.

Ines Geissler of East Germany clocked 2:10.44 for an Olympic record in the 200-meter fly, but Meagher countered with a new world mark of 2:06.37 - a whopping 4 seconds faster.

“For me, it was just affirmation that I would have won,” said Meagher, who also qualified as an Olympian in the 200-meter freestyle.

Meetings With The President
Because Plant is an executive for the Atlanta Braves, Meagher is one of the few 1980 Olympians with the opportunity to see President Carter, who sits in the VIP box at the baseball stadium. Meagher recalled a playoff game when a member of President Carter’s security team asked her if she minded giving up her seat. Meagher dutifully moved to the row behind.

"Security came back and said, ‘I’m sorry, but we need to sit here. Could you find someplace else to sit?’” Meagher said. “Well, the rest of the box was full, and as I was walking away, one of my neighbors said to me, ‘He screwed you again, didn’t he, Mare?’”

She just laughed it off. Meagher had also encountered the former president at the 1998 Goodwill Games, which Plant organized in New York for Turner Sports. They were in a suite and President Carter overheard someone ask Meagher, “So, what made you set those world records that are still standing?”

"And I said, ‘Well the boycott of 1980,’” Meagher said. “I was just telling the truth because that gave me the background of training, but Mike is kicking me under the table and (Turner Sports executive) Harvey Schiller’s looking at me like, ‘Really?’”

Meagher said President Carter “didn’t pursue that line of questioning at all. But I feel like he needs to know that, just like we tell our kids, there are consequences to your actions.”

At the time, however, Meagher wasn’t too upset. 

“I was not one of those kids that grew up wanting to go to the Olympics,” she said. “I was the 10th child in my family, with one TV in the house, and I don’t even remember my parents ever watching the Olympics. I was very competitive, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t see the big picture.”

She was focused on beating her teammate, Lisa Buese, and breaking her own world records. 

“I also had a boyfriend, starting that summer,” Meagher said, “so I will say I fell head over heels for someone who also swam and it probably took a lot of the sting off of the reality that was going on in the swimming world.”

Historic World Records
In August 1981, during one glorious week in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, Meagher set the world records that would last more than 18 years apiece. She went 57.93 in the 100-meter fly and 2:05.96 in the 200-meter fly.

But in 1982, Meagher lost at the world championships in the 200 to Geissler, the Olympic champion from East Germany, by more than a second. Meagher started feeling stress build up for the 1984 Games, which were to be held in Los Angeles.

Then the Soviets led their own boycott, which included the powerful East German team.

“I always say in ‘84, when I won my first gold, after the question, ‘How do you feel?’ I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I finally won the gold medal that I was supposed to win.’” Meagher said.

But her three gold medals were bittersweet because the field was diluted by the boycott. 

“I was really bummed out,” Meagher said. “As a competitor, you just want the best in the world there, even though it would have made winning harder because I had started to struggle and I wasn’t feeling as in control. Luckily, with swimming, we can compare times. So at the end of the year, you could still say my time was the fastest in the world and I would have won - but you really just never know.”

Meagher went on to win a bronze medal in 1988 in the 200 fly, a crushing disappointment since it was only her third loss in the event in nine years. To this day, whenever she sees a shoo-in that doesn’t win, her heart goes out to them. 

“I just remembered what that felt like to be doing everything you possibly could and not have the results that should have, could have, would have been,” she said.

Coming to Terms With Boycotts
During the 1996 Games, Meagher was one of the distinguished Olympians chosen to carry the Olympic flag into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony. All of the “pomp and circumstance,” coupled with what she called her “transition to real life” after retirement, caused her to reflect on her career.

“I was feeling sorry for myself,” Meagher said. “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 boycotts) wasn’t ideal. According to the times, I would have won in 1980. And then in 1984, if (the Soviet bloc) didn’t boycott, I would have been one of the only Americans to win in Los Angeles. There were so many that won, not just swimming, but track and field and other sports, that I kind of got lost in the crowd.”

Although Meagher said she never swam for notoriety or financial rewards, she felt the boycotts altered the trajectory of her career.

Plant, who went to Lake Placid for the 1980 Olympics but did not compete, wouldn’t let her wallow in self-pity.

“Mike turned to me and said, ‘So do you wish none of it had happened?’” Meagher said. “I was like, ‘No, I would do it all again in a second.’ He goes, ‘Then pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on and be grateful for the good.”

And that includes meeting Plant. Meagher, who swam for the University of California, Berkeley in college, was the U.S. flag-bearer at the 1986 World University Games in Kobe, Japan. Plant was the team official who instructed her that under no circumstances was she to dip the flag before any foreign dignitaries.

“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Meagher said. She did not dip the flag.

After Meagher retired in 1988, she became a swimming representative to the USOC’s Athlete Advisory Council, which Plant chaired. They worked together for four years, eventually started dating and by the 1996 Olympics they were married.

Teammates Left Behind
Meagher, 55, who has a pool named after her in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, feels empathy for her 1980 teammates who never made it to the starting line at an Olympics.

“In 1984, I remember several times, just really going ‘Wow, to be sitting home right now and not experiencing this was just so unfair and heartbreaking,” she said. “And I probably should have had a better attitude when I lost in ‘88, remembering the people in ’80 that didn’t get to even do it - that sense of devastation.”

All some of them got was a goodwill trip to China in the summer of 1980, courtesy of the U.S. government, where Meagher said, “We swam in their green swimming pools that were disgusting and we gave clinics.”

Forty years later, Meagher thinks the U.S. boycott may have helped start the turmoil that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. “I do think that was a devastating smack in the face,” she said. “I think it hurt their reputation, because it made a statement loud enough that some of their own people stopped believing all they were being told about how great Russia is. They were saying, ‘Why didn’t the Americans come?’”

But she believes Team USA would have done more good by competing in Moscow.

“I think it would have been better to send us in there,” Meagher said, “because we not only mingle with the athletes, we mingle with shopkeepers, we mingle with society, we bring our capitalism and plant seeds. I just think you infuse the Western mentality into a place and it does wake them up.”

And then the 1980 U.S. team would not have become forever known as “The team that didn’t go.”

“The USOC  did everything they could to try to make us feel like we were the 1980 Olympic team,” Meagher said. “I didn’t even know until recently that the IOC doesn’t recognize that team as Olympians.”

“So, that would be a dagger.”