Ailene Voisin

Olympian Debbie Meyer still owns the gold after all these years

Debbie Meyer counts years, not medals, and she swears she is ready to read a new chapter. Forty-eight years ago. The 1968 Games. She was just a 16-year-old from Carmichael when she swept the 200-, 400- and 800-meter events in Mexico City, becoming the first swimmer to win three individual Olympic gold medals.

No one has matched Meyer’s accomplishments, though the men compete at 1,500 meters instead of the 800.

But that may change next month in Rio de Janeiro. American Katie Ledecky, 19, is coming fast and hard. The nine-time world champion owns the world records in the 400 and 800 and is ranked second in the world in the 200.

In a chance encounter two months ago in Phoenix, Meyer approached Ledecky, gave her a hug and encouraged her to rewrite the record book. The two remain acquaintances and are in occasional contact, though it was Ledecky’s mother, a former swimmer, who was starstruck.

This was Debbie Meyer, after all, and her swim prints are all over an Olympics that also became known for the fist-raising medal ceremony protest of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos; high jumper Dick Fosbury’s flop; Bob Beamon’s world record (by a staggering 22 inches) in the long jump; Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari’s collapse at the end of the marathon, on a dislocated knee; the East and West Germans competing as separate nations for the first time; Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska capturing four golds; Jim Hines, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans setting world marks in the 100, 200 and 400.

Meyer, 63, thinks back and shakes her head. She was so young. What did she know? She was just a high school kid shuttling between the Arden Hills Swimming and Tennis Club and Rio Americano High early in the mornings and again when classes finished around 2 p.m. Seven days a week, Meyer trained and developed under Sherm Chavoor, the legendary coach whose Carmichael-based program in the 1960s and ’70s produced Meyer, Mark Spitz, Jeff Float and Mike Burton, among others, and whose swimmers amassed 31 Olympic medals.

“We just swam and swam for hours,” recalled Meyer. “That was Sherm’s thing. Training is very different now.”

The routine, the grind, the repetition. The sense that she had achieved her dreams so it was time to move on? Whatever the primary motivation – and Meyer occasionally ponders it to this day – she retired from swimming after returning to Sacramento and went in search of other challenges.

Almost 50 years later, her life adheres to a familiar narrative: Meyer wanted out of competitive swimming, but you can’t keep her out of a pool. And those competitive juices keep thriving like California vines; asking Debbie Meyer to relax and retire is an impossible dream, someone else’s dream.

Though life has been difficult these past few years with the passing of her father, the long-term care demands of both an aunt and her mother, Meyer, who splits time between Carmichael and her home base in Truckee with her husband, Bill Weber, fills any potential athletic void with two passions: skiing and traveling.

Having long since recovered from a shattered ankle suffered at Sugar Bowl, Meyer can detail every Black Diamond run around Lake Tahoe. While her husband seeks the pure speed of the downhill, distance is still in her DNA; she prefers perfecting her turns, practicing her movements, fixating on balance and the refined, graceful rhythms of slaloms and grand slaloms.

Her other outside interest – the one about camping and traveling to historic U.S. sites – is a serious hobby. Debbie and Bill spent a few weeks last summer driving around the northern United States, ending their trek at Mount Rushmore. Facts, figures, battles, deaths. She recites information like a tour guide promoting his territory.

As for camping? None of that hike all day, stay at hotel at night. “Tent up, tent down,” she says, with a grin.

The Meyer itinerary includes a variety of other activities, many pertaining to swimming. After attending the U.S. Swim Trials a few weeks ago in Omaha, Neb., in an arena occupied by temporary pools, the three-time gold medalist recalled working with the late Mayor Joe Serna and original Kings GM Dutch Van Dusen in the 1980s to acquire an NBA franchise. Before leaving Nebraska, she leaped to the ensuing generation and was struck by another vision.

Golden 1 Center almost completed. Hot summer days and nights. A rich history of elite swimmers that includes two-time gold medalist Summer Sanders. Several swim clubs and teams within the region. Why can’t Sacramento bid for the 2024 U.S. Olympic swim trials, she suddenly wondered, along with other international meets?

“I have to get on that,” she said, nodding.

See, no matter how many mountains she skis, how many roads she travels, Meyer can’t leave the pool. After the 1968 games, she enrolled at American River College and then UCLA, intent on becoming a physical education teacher at the elementary school level. With the job market tanking and a year shy of a degree, she returned to Sacramento and eventually opened the Debbie Meyer Swim School in Carmichael.

With one of her two children, Colin, handling daily operations, she gives private lessons Monday through Wednesday, then spends Thursdays and Fridays teaching at the Tahoe-Donner recreation center in Truckee. On one stunning recent afternoon in the hills north of downtown Truckee, Meyer was found in the pool at the rec center, patiently tutoring a youngster on breathing technique, oblivious to the shrieking and splashing of other children nearby. Her approach is upbeat and encouraging, her voice gentle and kind.

“I always wanted to teach kids,” she said after four hours of lessons and a quick detour to the locker room to shower and dress. “I just seem to relate to children. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been just a big kid.”

Having changed into white capri slacks and a blue knit shirt, she sits on a chair in the clubhouse, sharing the premises with two youngsters and an adult who have no clue as to her identity. No matter. Meyer, who has a delightful, engaging personality, her electric blue eyes often brimming with humor, laughs and shares a joke about the changing times. Color TVs were becoming the rage right about the time she was collecting her gold medals in Mexico City. Were our TVs color or still black and white? And who remembers?

Though she has only attended three Olympics since her epic performance and no longer coaches, she gives clinics, attends conferences and meets, and follows the progress of the athletes closely. Ledecky is clearly on her radar, as is Leah Smith.

In an interesting aside, Meyer, who is long and slender, and still remarkably athletic, cites the intriguing contrast between physiques. She was 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds at Mexico City, with an astonishing six-foot wingspan. Ledecky is 6-foot and 155 pounds, while Smith is listed at 5-10 and 148 pounds.

“They are all so much bigger today,” Meyer adds. “It’s very interesting. I just hope we do well.”

And, oh, yes, she will be watching, on a big screen, with color TV.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, avoisin@sacbee.com, @ailene_voisin

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 25 to correct Debbie Meyer’s age.

  Comments