Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Personal Best (1982)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Personal Best (1982)

In director/writer Robert Towne's groundbreaking directorial debut film - it was Hollywood's frankest treatment of lesbianism up to that time. The bold sports film celebrated female athleticism and sexuality, and specifically emphasized and honestly depicted the naturally spontaneous relationship between two women track and field athletes who were in training for the 1980 Olympics, with an emphasis on the physicality of the athletic, well-toned women. With mixed reviews, the film eventually cost $16 million to make, and only achieved about $5.7 million (in domestic revenue).

It provided the suggestive tagline: "How do you compete with a body you've already surrendered to your opponent?" - See Sex in Films for the uncensored version:

  • in the film's opening set in Eugene, OR at Hayward Field's 1976 Olympic Trials, the first striking image was of sweat dripping off the face of promising track-field star hurdler Chris Cahill (18 year-old Mariel Hemingway at the time of filming, in her first lead role), as she was poised and set to race in the starting blocks

Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway)

Tory Skinner (real-life track star Patrice Donnelly
  • from another part of the track infield, the 100-meter hurdles race was intensely being watched by Tory Skinner (real-life track star Patrice Donnelly who participated in the 1976 Olympics as an acclaimed hurdler), an older and seasoned pentathlete who was holding a shot-put during her own 5-event pentathlon competition; Chris lost her hurdles race and apologized to her coach-father Rick Cahill (Larry Pennell); meanwhile, Tory took 2nd place in her competition (filmed in slow-motion), qualifying her for the Olympic team
  • Tory was at a bar that evening to celebrate her win with black friend Roscoe Travis (Jim Moody), when the upset Chris suffered a fainting spell, and Tory offered to drive her home; Tory comforted Chris who began crying about her loss; in Tory's off-campus apartment, they smoked weed, watched TV, drank some beer, flirtatiously bantered with each other, and playfully competed through arm-wrestling; an attraction grew between them as they determinedly stared at one other - deadlocked with heavy breathing and grunts
  • afterwards, Tory expressed her personal fascination with Chris and her potential, and encouraged her to be more confident and develop a "killer instinct" to ensure her future in sports: "If I could have been anyone in that race today, I'd have been you....Because you can be great... Speed, strength, flexibility. Everything I always wanted, you've got"; Tory confessed she was scared and then kissed Chris on the lips
  • in a sensitively filmed scene as they laid naked together, they took turns softly touching and pleasuring each other; Chris noted that they both would have been called a "carpenter's dream" by her brothers: "Flat as a board and easy to nail"; Tory switched places and began touching the bisexual Chris who remarked: "This feels pretty good. I've never had this done before" - before they embraced and made love
  • Chris accompanied Tory to her school - California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, where Tory suggested that Chris train with her coach Terry Tingloff, although her father was concerned that she hadn't been granted a sports scholarship; the manipulative coach initially refused to coach or guide Chris (after viewing her disastrous trials and calling her a "third-rate hurdler" with "no speed, no guts"), and was skeptical as to why Tory was promoting her ("Since when is another athlete's performance so important to you, huh?"); however, he allowed Chris to work out and race with the team during practices, without coaching her

Chris' Coach-Father Rick Cahill (Larry Pennell)

Tory's Cal Poly Track Coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn)
  • the two became roommates at the school and soon entered into a serious lesbian relationship with each other; after a few months, due to pressure from Tory on the coach, Chris was allowed to participate with the team by running in one of the hurdle lanes, and although she faltered at first, she demonstrated speed and endurance
  • after a sweaty workout in a game of touch football, the taunt female athletes basked in a steamy spa, as the camera slowly panned from right to left, emphasizing their unabashed physicality; frank full-frontal sexuality was displayed, with additional overheard bits of sexually-oriented conversation
Female Athletes in a Steamy Spa
  • by 1978, the two traveled to Cali, Colombia to compete in the World Student Games; Chris had proven herself with the team and the coach; however, before the games started, Chris suffered from food-poisoning by unwisely (against the rules) eating fruit from a local stand, and as a result, Tory performed poorly the next day after staying up all night to help tend to Chris's health; the Coach was upset with both of them: "You're sick and she can't perform" - but then Chris surprised him with an excellent time, and was praised by the coach: ("You ought to get food poisoning more often"); after the trials were over, Tory became acutely jealous of Chris' interest in a male athlete at a beer and weed-smoking party, and had to be pulled aside by the Coach
  • upon their return to Cal Poly, Coach Tingloff offered Chris a "full ride" scholarship (room, board, and tuition) for the following year, but she was required to train with him during the summer and change her event to the pentathlon due to her strength, speed and flexibility - meaning that she would be competing against pentathlete Tory: ("There's room for more than one in the country"); he also added: "I don't know what scares you more. Getting beat by Tory Skinner or beating her?"; now, Chris had a chance to compete at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow
  • again, friction developed between Tory and Chris over Tingloff's coaching interest in her, and his demand that she become a pentathlete; a love triangle of sorts developed between Tory, Chris, and Coach Tingloff
  • soon, it appeared to Tingloff that Tory might be suspiciously sabotaging Chris' superior high-jump capability just before the Pan American Games (the last int'l competition before the Olympics); the Coach warned Chris: "Don't get any more help from her until after the Pan Ams, okay?"
  • at the same time, tensions increased between Chris and Tory over their relationship, and Tory proposed an ultimatum - they should break up: "Okay, there's only one thing left to do, kiddo. See other people... Look, either we're together or we're not together....Yeah, we may be friends, but every once in a while, we also f--k each other. Either you move out or I move out and we really are just friends"; but then they agreed to try and reconcile everything between them

An Emerging Love Triangle between Tory, Chris, and Terry

Increased Tensions Between Chris and Tory - Tory Proposed That Chris Move out and They Become Just Friends
  • as the coach had feared, Chris ended up with an injury (a dislocated left knee) due to Tory's admitted, ill-advised high-jump coaching; however, Tory avoided taking the blame for deliberately hurting Chris: "You know I would do anything to avoid hurting you"; Tory thought the Coach was attempting to break them up: "Don't let him do this to us," and then asked if Chris trusted her: "Did I do this to you on purpose? Did I? Did I? Did I?"
  • the Coach encouraged Chris to vacate Tory's apartment - he also invited Chris to briefly stay with him in his home to care for her; he blamed Tory for Chris' accident, and became enraged at Chris for continuing to care about her double-crossing "girlfriend" - "She's crippled you"; in the film's most emotional confessional scene, the Coach expressed his resentment at coaching a female team, and was involved in so many female-related emotional issues: "I could have been a man's coach. Back-field coach, Oregon State. I had the job. I had the job....I was coach of the year last year. You know what that means when you're a womens' coach? Jacks--t. I mean I could have coached football"; however, Chris adamantly refused to blame Tory for her injury: "She didn't mean it....I still think she didn't mean it. And I still care about her"
  • as Tory was leaving to compete in the Pan Am Games, Chris promised to find a new place to live before she returned; meanwhile, Chris was receiving therapy in a swimming pool to strengthen her knee; she began to express interest in professional water polo player Dennis Stiles (Kenny Moore), a handsome blue-eyed athlete who had won two Olympic gold medals for swimming (who later wondered if all the training was really worth it); they began to bond over exercise and lifting weights
  • back at the athletic field, the Coach worried that Chris and Tory might be undermining each other, and he cautioned Chris to not be on the practice field at the same time as Tory: ("I don't want you and Tory on the field at the same time...I don't think you can handle it"), but Chris rebuked him: "I work out with everybody else, or I don't work out at all. I'm too old, too hurt and too tired to put up with this s--t"
  • Chris began to establish a serious relationship with Denny, even though he knew about her past lesbian relationship with her ex-roommate Tory; she was embarrassed to talk about it, but he didn't care; he regarded them as the "two greatest-looking girls in San Luis Obispo. It wasn't a secret"; Chris vowed their relationship was over: "We don't see each other anymore, ever"; she playfully accompanied him to the bathroom, to hold him as he peed into the toilet ("I want to hold it"); when he said that he was having trouble ("This isn't gonna work"), she turned on the sink water and he relaxed
A Serious New Relationship with A Male

Denny's Thoughts About Chris' Past Lesbianism: "I don't care about any of that"

Chris' Bathroom Assistance for Denny
  • by 1980, the athletes were again competing at the Olympic Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field in Oregon, although they knew that the US had already announced a politically-inspired boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow; both Tory and Chris were competing against each other in the various pentathlon events; Coach Tingloff tightly controlled Chris' contact with Tory, commanding her: "You're not going to say a word to her" - she responded by calling him a "manipulative, sadistic creep"; he insisted that she stay focused on competitive winning: "Don't kid yourself. You're here to kill anybody that gets in your way, and all the rest is bulls--t"
  • in the 100-meter hurdles, Chris hit one of the hurdles and fell behind in the standings to 5th place, and then fell back further to 6th place after fouling in the shot-put event; with words of encouragement from Denny, Chris achieved her "personal best" performance in the 3rd event - the high-jump at "6 foot, three and a quarter," and Tory slightly injured herself during the long-jump competition (the 4th of 5 events) on a rain-soaked track; tallying up the results, Chris was now in 2nd place, while Tory was in 4th place
  • in the final event of the pentathlon, the 800-meters race, Tory came from behind to win the race; as Chris crossed the finish line, she fell into Tory's arms; both athletes had made the US Olympic team (Chris placed 2nd, and Tory was in 3rd place); after being recognized on the winners' stand, Tory acknowledged to Chris that Denny was a cute male: (Tory: "He's awful cute - for a guy" - Chris: "Are you s--ttin' me? Hey!"); Chris' experimentation in lesbianism with Tory had only been a transitory phase

Close-Up: The Sweaty Face of Track-Field Hurdler Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway)

Flirtatious Talk in Tory's Room

Their First Kiss

Chris Cahill With Tory Skinner

Chris Working Out with Roommate Tory and the Cal Poly Track Team

In Cali, Colombia, Tory Caring For Chris' Food Poisoning

Chris Offered a "Full Ride" At Cal Poly by the Coach

Lovers & Competitors

Also, Chris' Growing Attraction For Her Coach

Chris' Dislocated Knee Injury During High-Jump Practice Due to Tory's Advice - Was it Sabotage?

The Coach Encouraging Chris' Breakup With Tory

Swimming Therapy for Chris' Injured Knee

Water Polo Player Dennis Stiles (Kenny Moore) - Chris' New Love Interest

Coach to Chris: "You're here to kill anybody that gets in your way..."

Chris Competing in the Pentathlon (Hurdles) at the Olympic Trials

The Finale: The Winners on the Stand


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