Debbie Meyer became the first female swimmer to collect three individual gold medals at the same Games when she won the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events at Mexico City 1968, a unique treble that has not been repeated since.
On 20 October 1968 a blonde-haired, blue-eyed high school student by the name of Debbie Meyer took her place on the starting platform for the 400m freestyle final at the Mexico City Games. Four minutes, 31 seconds and eight hundredths later, the teenager from Sacramento, California, had won gold and set an Olympic record, having lead all the way to finish a full four seconds clear of her compatriot Linda Gustafsson.
Two days later she posted the fastest time in the 800m freestyle heats before going on to win the 200m freestyle final in a time of 2:10.5, another Olympic record, with Jan Henne and Jane Barkman coming home less than a second later to complete an American one-two-three.
Then on 24 October the 16-year-old shrugged off an upset stomach to cruise to gold in the 800m freestyle final, setting her third Olympic record in a time of 9:24.0, over 11 seconds faster than the silver medallist, fellow American Pam Kruse. To this day, no other swimmer has matched her hat-trick of Olympic freestyle titles.
After completing her unprecedented treble, Meyer paid tribute to her coach Sherman Chavoor, “I’m going to give one [of my medals] to Sherm, he’s the greatest.” Chavoor was equally effusive about his prodigy: “She was a hell of an athlete… She was in a class by herself.” With her coach by her side, Meyer set no fewer than 20 world records in her brief but stellar career, holding the 200m (2:06.7), 400m (4.24.3), 800m (9.10.4) and 1500m (17.19.9) records at the same time in the early 1970s. In 1968 she won the James E. Sullivan Award, the most prestigious accolade in American amateur sport, and was named Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1969.
After picking up her third gold at Mexico City, Meyer said: “I’m thinking of carrying on for one or two more years. I might even keep going till Munich if I can make the team.” She and her coach embarked on another intensive training programme as they prepared for her triple Olympic title defence, but then, with just eight months to go before the Games, on 8 January 1972, the 19-year old decided to quit competitive swimming.
A devoted wife and mother, Debbie Meyer became a swimming instructor before opening the Debbie Meyer Swim School in Carmichael, California, in 1993. Inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986, she drives a car with the personalised number plate “3GOLD68”.
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