For Swift Sippy Woodhead, 15, the Gold Medals Come by the Fistful These Days

UPDATED 10/15/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/15/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

'She's not a giant,' says her coach, 'but she works her butt off'

Sippy Woodhead tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 and failed. "I swam the 200 freestyle," she recalls. "I placed 22nd or something. I mostly went for the experience, plus it was near my house." "The next day," adds her mother, Carol, "she came home and graduated from sixth grade."

Today, at 15—which is middle-aged for female swimmers—the blonde from Riverside, Calif. is a global superstar. Last month at the International Swimming Federation championships in Tokyo, she won four gold medals and broke her own world record in the 200-meter freestyle (1:58.23). This summer Sippy won five gold medals—three individual and two for relays—at the Pan American games in Puerto Rico and three more at the A.A.U. national championships in Florida.

"She's not a giant," says Chuck Riggs, who coaches the 5'5", 119-pound Sippy at the Riverside Aquatics Association, "but she's disciplined and tough. And she works her butt off."

In the '76 Olympics, the American women's team was humiliated by the East Germans, managing to win only one Gold Medal in 13 events. Now, with the emergence of such young athletes as Woodhead, her friend and competitor Kim Linehan, Tracy Caulkins of Nashville, who usually swims individual medley and breaststroke, and freestyler Stephanie Elkins of Jacksonville, Fla., the U.S. is more than competitive. The Olympic wipeout "won't happen again," Woodhead says. "I guarantee it."

The daughter of the Riverside City Attorney, Sippy (her older sister couldn't pronounce Cynthia) began swimming competitively at 9. "It was a shock when she started setting age group records," says her mother. "When she was 13, I got a phone call from Salinas and this little voice said, 'Mom, I just set an American record.' I had to sit down."

Sippy compensates for her size with punishing workouts—swimming eight to 10 miles a day, six days a week and weight lifting. She can bench press up to 140 pounds, a training technique developed by the East Germans. Frank Keefe, who coached Sippy during the Pan Am games, said, "I had to send her to bed for a day and a half. She worked so hard she couldn't swim anymore."

Sippy's day normally begins with Mom driving her to a 5:30-7:30 a.m. workout, back home for breakfast, then to nearby Poly High School, where she's a sophomore with a B average. She's given up piano lessons and, like most young swimmers, her social life revolves around people in wet Speedos. After a 4-6:30 p.m. workout, she usually watches television before hitting the sack at 8 p.m. (At a USA-USSR meet in Austin, Texas in 1978, though, Sippy and some teammates inadvertently broke the team curfew and were suspended from competing for the U.S. for three months.)

Out of the water, Sippy is a hopeless junk food addict (a favorite is pizza). When she goes abroad, her mother packs a jar of chunky peanut butter because, says Sippy bluntly, "the food over there is bad."

Though her next meet isn't until January, she has been running five miles a day and keeping up light pool workouts. In the long run she is pointing toward the Olympic trials next June in Austin.

The rewards of swimming, she says, are "the trips and seeing my friends." She did get tired enough of the grind to consider quitting once last year. But she reconsidered, Sippy says with a laugh, after wondering, "What else would I do with myself at 7 in the morning?"

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