Growing up as a competitive swimmer, I remember hearing about the famous U.S. women's 400 freestyle relay at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where the Americans beat a heavily-favored East German squad to win the gold, against all odds. This terrific documentary tells the story of the swimming competition at the 1976 Games, where the American women, who had dominated women's swimming in past Olympics, were now being shut out from the medal podium by a new power in the pool: East Germany. The East German women had seemingly risen out of nowhere to dominate the leaderboards in every single event and relay, slashing world records by whole seconds. American phenom Shirley Babashoff was favored to win several gold medals in the freestyle events, but East German swimmers denied her at every turn. Shirley, along with her teammates, was suspicious of the East Germans' quick rise to dominance and voiced her discontent and implied that there was cheating going on, but she was criticized of being a poor sport and dubbed "Surly Shirley" by the media. Years later, she was proven right--East Germany was engaging in systematic doping of their athletes, and that was indeed the reason for the East German women's meteoric rise to the top of the leaderboards. The last event of the Games, the 400-freestyle relay, was the Americans' last chance to win a gold....and they did it, against all odds, with none other than Babashoff swimming the anchor leg.
This documentary features extensive interviews with three of the four members of the relay, Shirley Babashoff, Jill Sterkel, and Wendy Boglioli (sadly, Kim Peyton passed away in 1986 from a brain tumor), U.S. swim coach Mark Schubert, and several of the East German "wundermadchen"--Kornelia Ender, Petra Thumer, and Renata Vogel. Julianna Margulies is an excellent narrator. The documentary treats the sad subject fairly--recognizing that the U.S. women, especially Babashoff, were denied their medals but also recognizing the horrific treatment of the East German athletes, who were used as pawns in the geopolitical game of the Cold War. The ending relay, where the American women swim their hearts out after a whole Olympic Games' worth of disappointment and anger, is emotional and will have you fist-pumping at the end when Shirley Babashoff touches first for gold.