Mary Meagher: The Right Fit Was At Cal
By Ann Killion
Theirs was an unlikely marriage between university and athlete.
Mary T. Meagher was a young superstar of swimming, who set her first world records in the 200-meter butterfly when she was just 14 years old. She was a conservative, religious Southern girl from Louisville, Ky., whose nine older siblings had all gone to Notre Dame.
Cal, in the early 1980s, wasn't exactly a destination school for female swimmers. It wasn't yet at the forefront of women's athletics. It was an urban, liberal hotbed, just a few years removed from the tumult of the free speech movement and anti-war protests. And it was 3,000 miles away from Louisville.
But in the fall of 1982, Meagher - who now goes by her married name Plant - packed her bags and headed to California.
"I wanted to pick a place I'd like to be even if I never swam," Plant said of her choice. "I loved the anonymity and culture of Berkeley."
Berkeley - both by its size and its lack of spotlight on its swim team - afforded Plant a measure of normalcy that she had been missing. In Louisville, she had been under the microscope since adolescence, celebrated as a major sports star in a city without a professional sports team. Attending an all-girls Catholic high school magnified her sense of scrutiny. She was ready for a change.
"I definitely loved the idea of the focus not being on me or my swimming," she said. "I was ready to be anonymous."
She chose Cal over some of the top swimming programs in the nation for a variety of reasons: the other schools had reputations as party schools, or the coach was rumored to be unethical, or the girls were unwelcoming, or the coach's focus on weigh-ins didn't sit well with her. She felt she fit best at Cal.
But because Cal wasn't established as a swim power, Plant heard some negativity and disbelief at her choice.
"Behind my back they were rolling their eyes," she said. "One of the things I loved about Berkeley is that nothing was handed to me."
She was the first female athlete to receive a full-ride scholarship at Cal though, and despite her elite status, that didn't come until her sophomore year. She had to pay for books as a freshman. She was aware that her boyfriend, who swam for the men's team at Cal and who had helped spur her interest in Berkeley, had a different experience.
"I felt like a second-class citizen to the elite men," she said. "I chose that, but still there were times that it was frustrating. I knew my boyfriend wasn't setting world records, yet he had a full-ride."
Plant had been a victim of the 1980 Olympic boycott. A year later, at the national championships in Brown Deer, Wisc., she set world records in both the 100 and 200 butterfly - marks that would stand for nearly two decades.
After her freshman year, she took a year off to train in Mission Viejo for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She won three gold medals, but she didn't feel she was at her best.
"That bothered me a little," she said. "The Eastern block had boycotted back so the main competition wasn't there. I've always felt there was an asterisk next to my gold medals. But you never know if you can win one, and it was nice to answer the question I'd been asking since 1980."
A month after the Los Angeles Games concluded, she enthusiastically returned to Berkeley. Without the Olympics looming, and with her boyfriend graduated, she threw herself into enjoying her college experience.
"When I think back on my sophomore year, I remember I laughed a lot," she said. "I really enjoyed college life."
With Plant as a star team member who could help with recruiting, the Cal team - under the direction of Karen Moe, who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics - steadily improved. By her senior year, the Bears finished fourth in the country and knocked off powerhouse Florida.
"It was such a great way to finish," she said.
Plant earned her degree in December of 1987. She moved to Virginia Beach to train with her high school coach for the Seoul Olympics. Though she won a bronze medal, Plant said she was disappointed with her performance. She retired from competitive swimming.
She never moved back to California. She now lives outside of Atlanta is now married to Mike Plant, a former speed skater and executive vice president of the Atlanta Braves. They have a son and a daughter.
And she follows Cal avidly - rooting on Natalie Coughlin and new USA Swimming Coach Teri McKeever. She's thrilled that Cal is now considered one of the elite programs in the nation.
"It's fantastic," she said. "I take pride that I was one of the instigators for the swim program."
An unlikely marriage. But a great one.
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