Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program

Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program
Shirley Babashoff with Chris Epting Foreword by Donna de Varona
July 2016
50 Photos
6 x 9

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.

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Author Information
Shirley Babashoff

Shirley Babashoff is an American Olympic champion swimmer. In her extraordinary career, she set six world records and thirty-seven national records and earned a total of eight individual Olympic medals. She won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay in both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, and four silver medals in the 4 x 100 meter medley relay and the 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle. She also won the 1975 world championship in both the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle. Prior to the 1990s, she was the most successful U.S. female Olympian and, in her prime, was widely considered to be the greatest female swimmer on the planet. Babashoff is perhaps best remembered for swimming the anchor leg on the gold-medal winning 4×100-meter freestyle relay team in its victory over the steroid-plagued 1976 East German women, in what is widely acknowledged to be the single greatest race in the history of women’s swimming. She was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer” in 1982. Babashoff lives in Fountain Valley, California, where she has been a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for nearly thirty years.

Chris Epting

The author of Hello, It’s Me has published numerous other books, including James Dean Died Here; Led Zeppelin Crashed Here; Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here; Roadside Baseball; and The Ruby Slippers, Madonna’s Bra, and Einstein’s Brain. He has contributed articles to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways, Travel + Leisureand Preservation magazine. Epting is also the national spokesperson and consultant for Hampton Inn’s Save-a-Landmark program, which recently won the Preserve America Presidential Award. He lives in Huntington Beach, California, with his wife and their two children.

Donna de Varona

Donna de Varona is an American Olympic swimmer who set eighteen world records and won multiple gold medals during her career. In 1964, the Associated Press and United Press International voted de Varona the “Most Outstanding Woman Athlete in the World.” After retiring from swimming, de Varona became a sports broadcaster. At the age of seventeen, she appeared on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, becoming the youngest and one of the first women sportscasters for a national network. Her groundbreaking career has earned her an Emmy, two Gracies, and the opportunity to cover seventeen winter and summer Olympic games. She was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer” in 1969.


Making Waves is a fascinating, complete testament to a true Olympian who showed extraordinary skills in the pool and raw courage outside it, and was years ahead of her time to realize that something was very wrong with the way athletes in certain countries were being prepared to compete on the world stage.”
Montreal Times

“Babashoff is a pioneer of the most painful kind: one of the first athletes to be cheated because the competition was using performance-enhancing drugs. . . . The IOC doesn’t have a time machine. It can’t take Babashoff and other athletes back four decades and give them the golden moment they deserved. They can, however, give her the gold. And they should.”

“Doping remains the scourge of sports, poisoning the concept of clean competition. . . . In contrast to athletes in other sports, Babashoff and other swimmers beaten by competitors who doped have not received the medals they earned. Many wrongs were perpetrated on them that have never been made right.”
New York Times

“After four years of swimming twenty miles a day, seven days a week, training with a men’s team to push herself, Babashoff was branded a disappointment and a poor sport. All because the nineteen-year-old was smart enough to see the East Germans for what they were—and audacious enough to call them on it when no one else would.”
USA Today

“Shirley Babashoff was our star going into those games, possibly the greatest female American swimmer ever. . . . She was as competitive, talented and relentless an athlete as America has ever produced. She received one gold medal (a relay), five silvers, a thousand taunts and insults and many death threats.”
— Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle

“In hindsight, the coaches should have been the ones speaking out, but it was considered ‘unsportsmanlike.’ Shirley paid the price for having the courage to tell the truth. . . . She’ll be remembered as the victim of cheating that never got the timely recognition that she deserved. I believe the records should be adjusted, as there is definitive proof of systematic East German cheating.”
— Mark Schubert, former Babashoff coach and current head coach and general manager of USA Swimming’s national team

“In 1976, Olympic swimmer Shirley Babashoff had the ability to equal Mark Spitz’s legendary seven gold medals, had she been competing on an even playing field. Sadly, the competition was not fair and the media chose to ignore the truth, and Shirley’s inability to conceal her disappointment made her the biggest victim of those Games. In Making Waves, she gets to balance those scales with a poignant and revealing memoir. Shirley deserves this hearing and through her insights and observations, you’ll learn more about this remarkable heroine than has ever been revealed before.”
— John Naber, 1976 Olympic swimming teammate

“Shirley Babashoff was visibly robbed of Olympic gold medals in 1976 and publicly humiliated in the media. She was the first athlete to accuse the East Germans of doping, but the world was not ready listen. Forty years later, Chris Epting finally tells the truth for the world to hear.”
— Brent Rutemiller, publisher of Swimming World

“Shirley should have the gold medals—she’s one of America’s greatest athletes ever and she had a lot of guts. Even today, athletes won’t speak up for fear of being called a sore loser, but that didn’t stop Shirley.”
— Jill Sterkel, part of the storied 1976 relay team that defeated the East Germans, now coordinator of athletics at the University of Texas

“I totally applaud what Shirley Babashoff did. It was the right thing at the right time, and looking back, it had a tremendous effect.”
— John Carlos, U.S. sprinter who, along with Tommie Smith, raised a black-power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City