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The Wonder Of Sippy Woodhead

Dec 18, 2012  - Chuck Warner

Guest writer Chuck Warner, US coach, considers the most enduring national age-group records among girls - and why the standards are still there 

Two more weeks of competition in the United States during December, and here we go again! Swimmers in 2012 are shredding the National Age-Group (NAG) record book.

Allie Szekely dropped nearly two seconds off the 13-14 girls 200-yard breaststroke record, Reece Whitley became the first 11-12 year old boy to break 1:00 in the 100 breaststroke swimming the distance in 59.90 and the NCAP 15-16 girls swam a 400-yard medley relay of 52.4, 1:01.7, 56.5 and 49.9. Their time of 3: 40.53 would have scored at the NCAA Championships just six years ago.  

Women’s swimming is improving so fast that while in 2006 at the NCAA Championships 53.6 earned a top-8 finals swim in the 100-yard backstroke, in 2010 the same time wouldn’t have qualified for the meet. The development of strength, athleticism, stroke length and body length have all helped the ladies nearly eclipse the records that Mark Spitz set when he won seven gold medals in 1972. 

With all that being said, how could one girl hold the three oldest USA NAGs that date back to 1977 and 1978? Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead was only 5’5” tall, didn’t have long arms or big feet, she wasn’t a super hero, just a super swimmer with the willingness to train and race like a champion. The USA’s oldest female record is Sippy’s for the 11-12-year old girls in the 500-yard freestyle. Her standard of 4:49.51 has withstood the challenges from eventual Olympic gold medalists Janet Evans, Brooke Bennett, Kate Ledecky and all the rest.  

Why has this record and her other two lasted more than 30 years?

To begin with, in the early 1970s the opportunities for collegiate and professional swimming for women were not what they are today. Sippy grew up in an era when most female swimmers and their coaches targeted their high school years not only as either their primary window for success but usually as their only window of success. 

An NCAA system for women to participate in college sports didn’t exist until Title IX was passed in 1972--and began to be better applied in 1975--to make equal opportunity at the collegiate level the law. Even when it was passed it took many years for a mass of collegiate programs to begin to attract top coaches, develop strong conferences and build a high quality environment that inspired and attracted most of the top age-group swimmers in America, and now attracts many of the best swimmers around the world. 

When Sippy was a young girl, on the other hand, East Germany had a system in place. Their system was carefully training and systematically drugging women in their national program that enabled them to slaughter the competition at the 1976 Olympics, including the USA. 

In the middle 1970s the sport of swimming was in an exploration of mileage limits. With the addition of goggles to a swimmer’s training, programs were finding out how long it was possible to stay in the water and work. In elite programs, the norm was being in the pool 11-12 times per week. It was not uncommon for swimmers to endure 100,000 meter or yards in a week, delivered by a plethora of young coaches eager to compete at the highest level of the sport. But in 1976, the East Germans dominated anyway.

So what did the American women do? 

They worked even harder. 

The American Swimming Team refused to lose. A leader of that team, George Haines stood up at the 1976 ASCA World Clinic in New Orleans and said, “I’ve been in this sport for a long time and not going to stand by for this. We aren’t giving our girls what they need and it’s up to us, as coaches, to change that.” 

Coaches across the country added strength programs and the girls worked at that too. 

Sippy Woodhead was a smiling, bubbly, little girl that grew up in Riverside, California and swam for the Riverside Aquatic Association (RAA). Like Missy Franklin in 2008, Sippy swam in the 1976 Trials at age 12 but was not ready to seriously compete for a spot on that Olympic team. Her coach, Chuck Riggs, was as willing as anyone to invest in excellence and coached 11 practices each week”and taught school all day in between sessions. In 1976 and 1977 he believed in mileage and would do whatever he thought it took to help swimmers meet their potential.  

In 1977, when Sippy was 13, Coach Riggs heeded the call to chase the East Germans and ran a program that consistently strove for completing 20,000 meters or yards per day, or over 100,000 each week. During school breaks that year RAA totaled 25,000 meters or yards on several days. They attempted 30,000 one day, but weren’t successful. 

In that program, and before her 13th birthday, Sippy swam the time of 4:49.51 in the 500-yard freestyle. But it was just setting the table for what was coming next. 

In the 1977-78 swim season, Coach Riggs decided to change his program to one of more high quality. Practice volume decreased from 10,000 meters/yards in 2 to 2.5 hours to 6,500 to 7,000. Sippy was benefiting from the huge base from the year before and training faster and faster. A small set during an intense practice that season was 4 x 200s leaving on 4:00. Her times were: 1:51, 1:50, 1:49.5 and1:49.1. On a “broken 1650” set one winter morning, after a great 1000 (5:00, 4:44) and an easy 200 she ripped off 5 x 100s on 1:00 swimming times of 58, 57.2, 56.6, 55.4, and 54.5.

The American record in the 100-meter freestyle at that time was about 56.5 for women. That summer our teams practiced together one day (ever feel like Forest Gump, a bystander in great moments in history?) and I had the joy of coaching Sippy in the sprint group. The first main set Chuck planned was 8 x 100s on 1:45 in which the swimmers added 25 more meters of fast swimming on each one from one through four. On number four, Sippy pushed off and swam the time of 1:00. As a coach wanting to see the highest achievement possible I started thinking about her diving in and making an American record attempt on number 8. With Chuck’s permission, I asked Sippy to dive on number eight and see what she could do. “No thanks,” she told me, flashing her smile that could light up a room. “Too much pressure.” 59 was all we got to see. 

Then came a set of 5 x 200s pull with paddles and a donut (foam rubber around the ankles to create resistance) on 2:45 descended down to 2:05. 

Sippy Woohead was like a kid on a water slide accelerating faster and faster down the slope. The heavy load from the 76-77 season, combined with a shorter more intense program the following year was creating the most versatile freestyler in the world. She was a national champion in distances that spanned 200 to the 1650 - a women’s version of the great Tim Shaw.

At the end of the summer of 1978, Sippy and a youth group of American women named Tracy Caulkins, Linda Jezek and Kim Linehan went right into the DDR team’s home country and whipped them in Berlin at the third ever World Championships. It was one of the most stunning turnarounds in the history of international swimming.  

George Haines bold assertions from 1976 seemed prophetic. 

At the World Championships Sippy set a new world record of 1:58.53 and threw in a 4:07.1 in the 400-meter freestyle - a time in her 70s suit that would have placed 4th at the 2012 USA Olympic Trials. Both times are still USA NAGs for 13-14 year old girls. 

The young lady that swam those times was just a 14-year old girl. Certainly with maturity she would get faster - right? The next summer, in 1979, she dropped her 200 freestyle world record twice down to 1:58.23.

…and the 1980 Moscow Olympics were just a year away. 

President Jimmy Carter put an end to her dream, as he did many others, of competing on the world’s grandest stage for swimming. He decided to boycott the Olympic Games, because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Sippy would have been 16 years old and had been ranked number one in the world during 1980 in the 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyles. 

The 1980 “Olympic Team” was invited to the White House, as a part of their “consolation prize.” In the receiving line, President Carter shook Coach George Haines’ hand. George wouldn’t let go. Coach Haines looked the President straight in the eye and said, “Do you know what you did to these kids?” The “kids” included Sippy Woodhead and others named Tracy Caulkins, Mary T. Meagher, Craig Beardsley, Bill Barrett, Rowdy Gaines and more, that were the very best in the world and denied the chance to prove it in Moscow. 

Sippy Woodhead might not be remembered for helping launch the collegiate program at USC, and winning a silver medal for the USA at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

But it is fitting that Sippy’s name remains in the USA record book, so she is remembered for what she did achieve - and perhaps just as importantly, for what she was never allowed to. 

Chuck Warner is the author of: