The Toughest Competitor I Swam Against: My Q&A with Sippy Woodhead
With the US Swimming Olympic Trials in full swing and the Games soon upon us, my thoughts turn to the euphoria of making the Olympic Team and the incredible athletes I became friends with in the process. One Olympian stands out above the rest for me. Cynthia ‘Sippy’ Woodhead is one of the swimming world’s great competitors of all time, and that’s not an introduction I give to many swimmers.
Coming onto the swimming scene unannounced, she was a young California girl from Riverside with an infectiously wide smile and a competitors’ heart. Despite her petite frame and tender age, she went on to become one of the greatest swimmers our country has ever known- not to mention a lifelong friend of mine. She was the fastest woman in the water in the 200M freestyle by the age of just 13 and to top it, she competed in four distances- an unimaginable feat to her fellow competitors including myself! With 7 World Records, 18 American Records, countless international medals and a Silver medal in the 1984 Olympics, Sippy took her place in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1994.
Now married, Sippy Brennan is still one of the most amazing athletes I know. Full of insight, my daughter Bonnie and I phoned her for a little Q&A session to kick off the Olympic season. We hope you enjoy this little interview… they just don’t make ‘em like Sippy anymore!
Wendy: When I look at all the Olympic athletes who have influenced my life, you are one of the most important. Lucky for me, we’ve always been very close. Tell me about the ’76 Nationals- where we first met. What was it like being a kid at Olympic Trials?
Sippy: In ’72, I remember watching the Games with my dad and he said bluntly, ‘You’re going to make an Olympic team one day.’ And I never doubted that. I didn’t talk about it, but I just felt that I was going to go to the Olympics and that was that (it helped that I was a little athlete to begin with). So when I qualified for Trials in ‘76, I just sort of went with it. They were in Long Beach that year, as you remember well, which was only an hour’s drive from my home in Riverside. I was such a kid back then, Wendy. I remember thinking, ‘Great, let’s go and see what this is all about,’ as if it was any other race!
Wendy: If you thought it was like “any other race”, you certainly didn’t show it! You always raced me so incredibly tough even though you’re nine years younger than I. Sometimes I thought you might let me take a race but you never did! Some swimmers race themselves and don’t care about winning…
Sippy: Not me. I always wanted to win! I wanted to be ahead of everyone- not just you Wendy!
Wendy: You did love winning, but you were so much fun and always goofing around with a big smile on your face.
Sippy: Yeah, I loved it all. I loved swimming. I loved being silly and goofing around. I loved travelling- which was good because I travelled about four months out of the year!
Wendy: And you set 18 American Records and 7 World Records, not to mention your Silver Medal in the ’84 Olympics and your Pan-Am victories. You were the most incredible swimmer I’ve yet to know. Does any race or record stand out above all others?
Sippy: The 1650 was my first American Record and I think I was 13 when I set it. I went something like a 16:25. That’s one I’ll always remember well.
Wendy: And unlike anyone else, you were an American or World Record holder in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1650! No one can do that… no one! How important was it breaking records in all of those events to you?
Sippy: It was a goal of mine. I started out with the mile so it was easier to go down from the mile then it would have been to start at sprinting and go up from there. I just thought I could do whatever I wanted to do. I never doubted myself, Wendy.
Wendy: How many days a week were you in the water back in those days and what kind of yardage were you doing?
Sippy: We did six days a week, and doubles four days. During breaks when we were out of school, we would get in 20,000 a day between two 10,000 workouts! I cycled my training and did different things every day. Wednesday we did pulling and recovery. Sprints were Tuesday and Friday. There was always a lot of variation.
Bonnie: And that variation carried over to training and competing in all the strokes for you, too.
Sippy: Yeah, I did it more for variety than anything. I’d change up distance, middle distance, IM workouts each week. It was all hard but it gave me variety and I was happiest doing it that way.
Wendy: You’ve had some great coaches over the years, Sip. Who’s on your short list?
Sippy: My first coach was Chuck Riggs so he’s up there for me. Then probably Frank Keefe and Peter Daland. Frank and I just clicked. He understood that I was a kid but he was still able to get the best out of me.
Wendy: Do you remember where you were when we found out that (President) Carter wasn’t going to let us go to Moscow in ’80 (for the Olympic Games)?
Sippy: I was in Europe and it was my birthday. The Russian swimmers were singing me Happy Birthday when I heard that we were boycotting! It hurt a lot of people. At the end of the day, for us athletes anyway, we all got along… we swam every day and every year only to have it get politicized every four years. It has never made sense to me. Afterwards, I kept training but it was heartless. I knew it was all for nothing.
Bonnie: And you were pegged to win four medals in those ’80 Games, Sippy. A string of unfortunate events happened on the heels of the Boycott: you broke your leg, suffered from mononucleosis and bronchitis. What was that period like for you?
Sippy: I was so unhappy. Everything was going wrong. In the middle of it all, I changed teams, too. Those were probably the least happy years of my life. I didn’t feel like myself again until 1987.
Wendy: Fast-forward to the ’84 Olympic Games- you knew you weren’t at your peak because of all those setbacks so what motivated you to train and make the team anyway? Did you consider just walking away?
Sippy: I did it because I felt I owed it to myself. But it wasn’t fun like it had been before. I placed second (200 Free) and I knew I wasn’t at my best at that time. It was so hard to just get to that point between what happened in ‘80 and ‘84. I told myself going in that I was just happy to be there. I’d been through a lot. But still, it hurt… it’s definitely a race I wish I could forget sometimes.
Wendy: Bernie and I were so excited to see you make the team after everything you went through. We lost an entire generation of swimmers thanks to ’80 but you were there on that ‘84 team and earned a spot on the podium! Afterwards, you swam for USC under Daland. What was it like to go back to collegiate swimming after you had essentially accomplished what you set out to do?
Sippy: I had a good time at USC but I was there to swim in college. That was really it because I knew I wasn’t going to go to another Olympics again.
Bonnie: Today, we see swimmers make 3, 4 and even 5 Olympic teams. That really wasn’t an option back then, was it?
Sippy: No. Swimming is a career now. You need help now and you get help now. Swimmers have agents! Things I struggled with, I had to do alone and the same for Wendy and all swimmers of our era… that isn’t the case anymore.
Bonnie: You went on to accomplish many more personal goals and have a few more setbacks. Do you attribute the lessons of dedication and perseverance against the odds to where you are today?
Sippy: I think so. When my first husband passed away in 1995, it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. Now I have comfort knowing that no matter what life brings, people are there for me. Bad things happen but I’m not afraid of having a good time. People show up when you need them. At the end of the day, I got exactly what I wanted and that amazes me after everything I went through: the ‘80 Olympics; the Silver in ’84; losing my first husband; re-marrying and having twins now. I am so lucky! Everything really does work out.
Bonnie: And you are still in tip top shape (seriously readers… incredible)! What keeps you lean and healthy?
Sippy: Every other day I get in the pool for 30 minutes. I play golf when I can find the time in between the kids’ school schedule. I run on the beach. I used to do triathlons but I got tired of hurting myself. I do yoga now, and I eat well and take care of myself to feel good. And I chase my kids all around! I love being with them… we go on bike rides and play in the ocean.
Wendy: Do your twins swim?
Sippy: They know how to swim really well but aren’t into it. They ski, water ski, ride bikes, play soccer. We want them to play every sport, so my husband and I laid off the 5 year old sport thing. I want it to be their thing, coming from them and not from me.
Wendy: You have such great perspective, Sip. You are so appreciative of everything. I love that about you. You are an incredible mom, an amazing swimmer and a genuinely great individual. Thank you for giving up some time for this interview.
Sippy: I’m so lucky that we competed against each other all of those years ago and still have each other. Thank you Wendy!
This entry was posted in Blog and tagged 1980 Boycott, 1984 Olympics, Chuck Riggs, Cynthia Sippy Woodhead, Frank Keefe, Olympics, Peter Daland, Sippy Brennan, Sippy Woodhead, Swimming Hall of Fame, US Swimming, USC Swim Team, World Record holder. Bookmark the permalink.