Swim Low, Sweet Memories Of Jack Babashoff

Jack who? Brother of the more famous Shirley, but an Olympic swimmer like no other

The wee small hours, and I’m lying in bed, in a mildly mesmerised stupor … you know the one: normal brain function still shutting down before the dream shift arrives, and you only realise you’re no longer awake when any sudden noise jolts you back from nod.

That zone of the inbetween, where thinking and dreaming are indivisible.

Rooting down the sides of my mental sofa, I feel something, and I fetch it up to the surface … why, it’s Jack Babashoff!

I’m so surprised I wake up fully, and get to thinking about … Jack Babashoff.

Jack bloody Babashoff! … lurking down there all this time, in some long-neglected and overgrown memory crevice, since way back when …

Back when myself and my brother E became fascinated by him in the Olympic Games of 1976, in Montreal.

E always loved swimming, and him being the older one, I followed him and also became hooked on the Olympic swimming that year.

Hooked on Jack Babashoff …

Hadn’t thought of him in years …

And I mean years  …

This gangly blond Californian swimmer dude  — aren’t they all?  — took silver in 100-metres freestyle in the Montreal Olympics in 1976, behind the great Jim Montgomery.

Jim ‘Medals’ Montgomery

Montgomery was the first man to go under 50 seconds in the 100 metres freestyle, and he did it in that final.

Jack Babashoff takes silver

A bit of context here.

In those days, in Ireland, the Olympics, the World Cup, the FA Cup final, and the All-Ireland hurling and football finals were all the telly sport we had.

Living in small-town Tipperary, we didn’t even have Match Of The Day or the Big Match, like our big-shot city cousins.

Maybe we were still getting used to colour telly — and huge big sporting shindigs like the Olympics are about nothing if not colour — but there was something extra special about the swimming Olympics on the gogglebox for us that year …

For me anyway.

The electric blue sparkling undulations of the water … the flashing cameras …the tensely-smiling march of the rubber-hatted gladiators in their colourful tracksuits to their allotted blocks … the high-pitched indoor screeching of the fans as the swimmers stripped down to their Speedo essence … 

Take your marks …the crack of the starting gun, and those gangly penguin bodies plunged into their natural element, transformed into powerful water sprites …. the lithe glide of elegantly thrashing limbs scything up that blue rectangle concourse, tumbling and turning at the end of the pool and kicking out and on to routinely prodigious feats of liquid engineering. 

We can all remember loads of gold medalists and matinee idol stars from the various Olympics, but some of my most enduring memories are of those guys and girls I took an inexplicable liking to.

Like Jack Babashoff …

Montgomery was the unbackable favourite on his inexorable glide to the title of world’s fastest swimmer that year.

So graceful, so powerful, so succesful.

Babashoff was so different, for us, to the rest of these beautifully graced athletes.

Jack was a sprinter, pure and simple …

Get there as fast as you can, and don’t spare the stroke power … no time for technique refinements or anything complicated …

Just put the head down and swim … hard!

From the instant he hit the water, maybe even before he actually connected with the wet stuff, our Jack proceeded, to my untutored eye, to just flail for all he was worth, from start to finish, his arms a triangular pink blur of motion, like a clockwork toy gone rogue, and those arms much, much quicker in and out of the water than those of all the other swimmers …

Jack was so obviously deficient in maybe all of the component parts of a sophisticated freestyle swimming style, and he was making up for all he lacked with an almost super-human number of strokes.

One lightning quick stroke after another, until the wall stopped him …

Couldn’t imagine him going one inch beyond the allocated 100 metres without burning out, or even spluttering to ignominious exhaustion … probably to be fished out with a giant net … 

Mongomery won well, but  Jack was a very decent second … Olympic silver for our hero …

It’s funny, I was just reading an interview with singer Suzanne Vega, where she said something along the lines of, your limitations are your style … they define it, and you, as a performer, become your calling card, what make you memorable, individual … you.

It’s like all those perfectly pitched and trained, but soulless X factor soul singers … the very essence of their quirky, wonky difference and personality imitated or trained out of them …

And I think maybe that’s why we loved Jack Babashoff … loved how he used his limitations to fashion something wonkily unique and marvellous …

A pioneer like the Wright Brothers, banging and clanging away in his head and in the pool until out came this weird and wonderful swimming machine …

That same year of 1976 myself and E, and a few others spent nearly the whole summer going every week day training to our local swimming pool.

Our younger brother G was Tipperary champion in the 50 metres freestyle in the regional Community Games early that summer, and had qualified for the national finals, to take place in the autumn.

So G needed to train, and we found ourselves going to the local Garda pool every week day for the rest of the summer, where the great Reggie B, a fitness instructor in the Garda Training Centre, and a wonderfully gregarious and gifted coach, who just as importantly, knew how to reach us and teach us.

And like all great volunteers, this hour was in his own time, at zero cost to us.

Our E always loved swimming, and swims and coaches to this very day. 

That summer of 76, I just tagged along for the craic and the camaraderie, never that pushed about swimming anyway, and less adept than either E or G, three years younger than me, but so powerful in the water over a short distance.

Like Jack Babashoff, G was much less technically proficient than E, but over that 50 metres, he could often beat our older sibling with sheer power and gusto.

G is a born competitor, with a competitive glint and glaze in the eye, I recall, when in a real race that I can only compare with Padraig Harrington in the zone.

Hardly the same level of achievement — or commitment —  but just that same sheer love of competition.

I swim in the sea now and enjoy splashing around, but never developed that love of training and improvement that our E had from the get go. I was neither as proficient as E nor as powerful as G, and saved my competitive zeal for football and soccer.

So, I didn’t care really about usually bringing up the rear to E, G, and the little circle of water cubs in Reggie’s pack that summer.

Reggie being Reggie, he did his best to bring me up to speed, and I did improve, getting close to G and E the very odd time in the races we finished off our sessions with. Probably when they were tired or off a bit.

I really didn’t mind because I never felt I was in my natural element.

And besides, I was already quicker that E in a road sprint … I remember the exhilaration of beating him the first time, on the road outside our house, and then doing it again in the demanded rematch!

One of Reggie’s dictums has remained with me: ‘Swim slow to swim well, swim well to swim fast’.

You can apply it to any endeavour: learn your technique properly, build it up slowly at first till you get the fundamentals right, and then conditioning and the rest will take care of the speed …

Fine if you want to be Jim Montgomery. And are also prodigiously gifted and dedicated

Maybe not so much if you’re a Jack Babashoff.

Ah, now I remember him well …

Thanks for reading — try another one … sure, why not follow my blog!

7 comments on “Swim Low, Sweet Memories Of Jack Babashoff

  1. michael morris

    Very good, Enda. Brought me back to my club days.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Our limitations define our styles. A fascinating thought. I think, though, that I’d place “partially” in front of “define”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not being a follower of swimming I’d never heard of Jack, but he sounds like someone I’d have supported, just for the hell of it. Was there any water left in the pool after one of his swims?


  4. I have always followed swimming because I can’t do it. I love the Olympics Thanks for the 76 memory
    Laugh Computers can’t do that for us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: