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Book Review: Making Waves

Review by Budd Bailey

It's unusual to review a book that's more than five years old in this space. The reason is that one of my suppliers of books, NetGalley, included it in its offerings recently, and the publication sounded interesting from a distance. 

It was interesting at close range too. In other words, "Making Waves" is worth your time even now.

Shirley Babashoff should be remembered as one of the greatest swimmers in American history. She won just about everything in sight at a variety of distances leading up to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. With Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in swimming not too far back in the rear-view mirror, there was talk that Babashoff could be something of a successor to him as America's swimming superstar. 

But during the build-up to the '76 Games, a problem was lurking for Babashoff and the American team. It came in the form of the squad from East Germany. The women's team was improving its times at a rate beyond comprehension. It didn't take much effort to Babashoff to notice that something was wrong - one look at the East Germans showed their muscles were getting larger and their voices were getting deeper. It wouldn't have been a surprise if they needed to shave each morning. Today we'd instantly look at steroids and other drugs as the causes of the changes, but the 1970s were more of an innocent era in that sense.

Babashoff performed spectacularly well by her own high standards at the Games, but for the most part couldn't keep up with the East German machine. When she went public with her views that something wasn't quite right with all of this, she was criticized for being a bad sport and picked up the nickname of "Surly Shirley." Babashoff did have the satisfaction of serving as the anchor of a relay team that had a perfect race to win the gold medal.

Babashoff went off to live the rest of her life, admittedly without the hoopla that would have come had she won multiple gold medals. But once the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, news about an East German drug program for athletes started to leak out. Eventually, those women were revealed to be either guinea pigs or pharmacies - pick your metaphor - and suffered physical damage that lasts until this day. 

Babashoff gets to take a few well-deserved "I told you so" moments in telling the story in the book. She's still a little bitter than the media, etc. didn't make more of a fuss about the East Germans back in the day, although in fairness it wasn't exactly easy to investigate anything going on in the Communist bloc in that day. In addition, Olympic officials weren't exactly inquisitive in those days. 

It hasn't been an easy life for Babashoff. The problems began as a child, with parents who had a strict Russian heritage and never did fit in too well in America. Shirley's father was a sexual predator, and her descriptions of that era are very painful to read; it's difficult to imagine how hard it was to write. Her only refuge was in the pool, and her drive mixed with athletic ability made her a champion every step of the way. 

Obviously Babashoff's post-Olympic life would have been different if she had brought home a bunch of gold medals from Montreal. But she eventually started working for the Postal Service, and seemed content with her life as of 2016 when the book was written.

While there have been attempts to rewrite history by stripping the East Germans of their gold medals retroactively (and such actions have been taken before), the International Olympic Committee has chosen not to take that step in this case. That's too bad, because that wrong can still be righted. Babashoff did receive the Olympic Order, the IOC's highest honor, but that's not the same as having those gold medals in the safe.

"Making Waves" is something of a mixture, then. It's part victory lap and part a story about the search for ultimate justice. The book goes by quite quickly, and it doesn't get bogged down in swimming minutia, so a general audience will find it interesting. Don't let any more time go before you get to it.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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