Between Olympics, swimmers might as well be snorkeling in Bermuda, for all the American public cares. What household names do emerge from the sport are highly decorated Olympians such as Mark Spitz, Donna DeVarona, Don Schollander, Debbie Meyer, and John Naber.
Whoever might have followed in their flutter kicks this year is left to speculation because of the US Olympic boycott, but Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead figures to be one of the names circulating during and after the games.
She had tuned up for the Olympics by winning five gold medals at the 1979 Pan American games and would have been the favorite in the 200-meter freestyle, an event in which she holds the world record.
Though dealt a blow by missing the Olympics, her dedication to swimming hasn't wavered. Explaining how she got over the Olympic disappointment, Sippy says: "I had to realize why I started swimming. It was because I had fun at it. "My parents didn't throw me in the water and say, 'You're going to win an Olympic gold medal; get in there and work hard.' I begged them to let me swim. I was so young they weren't going to let me."
She remembers taking regulars dips while still in diapers at the country club near here Riverside, Calif., home. By age 4, she was a replacement on a club relay team, and by 11 or 12 she had already begun to set national age-group records.
With all she's accomplished, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Sippy is just a 16-year-old high school junior. On the other hand, a refreshing girlishness comes through in person that exposes her fun-loving youth.
She confesses to entering water balloon fights and "stuff like that," stating flatly, "I'm just not a Cynthia." Her playful-sounding nickname, a much better fit, grew out of her sister's attempt to pronounce her newborn sibling's real name.
Even with the chance for Olympic glory gone by the boards, Sippy has lost none of her desire to compete. "Every year there's big meet, and the Olympics are just another big meet," she explained during the East Coast swing of the "Agree Tour of Champions," a corporately sponsored swimming promotion. "In January there's a major international meet in Gainesville, Fla. The World Games are the next year, followed by the Pan-Am Games.
"Just to make the American team [for these meets] you have to be one of the top two or three swimmers in the country. So being No. 1 or 2 in the nation is a major goal of mine."
The training required to compete at such a high level is an ordeal of countless laps swum is chlorinated water, many in predawn workouts. So what possibly makes swimming six hours a day, virtually the entire year, so rewarding?
The satisfaction that comes with achievement, of course, is part of it. Just as important, though, may be the friendships made through swimming.
"Swimmers are energetic and fun people, the kind I love being around," Sippy explains. "There are no big hate rivalries. We're all really close. We write each other and call each other on the phone to talk. Even a minute before getting on the starting blocks, Kim Linehan and I will still be joking around."
At the sound of the starter's gun, though, Woodhead and her rivals are all business.The days when American women could rest on their laurels ended abruptly at the 1976 Olympics, where East Germany's swimming Frauleins sank the US armada , which won but one gold medal.
Infused with new resolve, American women escalated their training, adding weight workouts in an effort to reassert themselves. They did just that in 1978 , splashing their way to a clear-cut team victory at the World Aquatic Championships in Berlin. Since then, Woodhead has surfaced as one of the new American stars, a group that includes Tracy Caulkins, Mary Meagher, and Linehan, among others.
These names may not quickly slip from the scene. "Everybody's staying in [ swimming] longer because of what's happened with women's college programs," Sippy indicates. "They're catching up to the men's, now that women are getting full athletic scholarship."
If she had to decide on a college tomorrow it would be the University of Texas (at Austin). For the time being, she's living in Mission Viejo, where she moved in order to join that community's famed swim team. Her former team, Riverside Aquatic, disbanded. Even if it hadn't, Sippy needed a more competitive practice environment.
"My mother was reluctant to let me go," she recalls. "She kept saying, "This isn't normal,' since my brother and sister hadn't moved out until they were two years older. But most swimmers of national caliber live away from home, and I'm only 45 minutes from Riverside staying with family friends."
The fact is, Sippy is happy, and that's what her parents care about.
Remember, they never pushed her into the deep end, she just always gravitated in that direction.