Personal Best (1982) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • The intertwined lives and loves of three highly-ranked athletes striving for the national team; Chris bounces between the beds of male coach Terry and her female friend, competitor, and role model Tory.

  • 1976. Chris Cahill and Torry Skinner are US national caliber track and field athletes, Chris in the 100 meter hurdles, and Torry in the pentathlon. Chris has the natural ability to be great but she doesn't possess the confidence or drive, while Torry, who has less natural ability, psychologically knows what it takes to be great, leading to Torry making the Olympic team finishing second in her event, while Chris has a disastrous Olympic trial. Torry can see the potential in Chris, and tries to convince her coach at Cal Poly, Terry Tingloff, to coach Chris, Terry who will only allow Chris to train with the team without his guidance in he only having seen her disastrous performance at the trials. Although not ideal in that no scholarship money is involved, Chris accepts the offer against the wishes of her father, who currently coaches her. In their time together, Chris and Torry embark on a relationship, each seeing in the other what each doesn't possess, their attraction thus sexual as well as emotional. Eventually, Terry does see in Chris what Torry saw from the start, he who not only decides to train her, but convinces her that the event in which she should compete is the pentathlon in possessing the strength, speed and flexibility to be that all around athlete. Terry in particular cannot see a friendship let alone a sexual relationship exist between the two women who are now in competition, especially in the lead up to the 1980 Olympic trials. Through the ups and downs of both their friendship and sexual relationship, Chris and Torry may demonstrate what it means to be one's own personal best, especially in an environment where winning seems to be the goal at all cost.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • At Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) competes in the Olympic Trials for the 1976 Summer Olympics. After losing in the hurdles event, Chris cries to her father, Rick Cahill (Larry Pennell), who is also her coach. Meanwhile, Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) wins second place in the pentathlon, earning a spot on the Olympic team.

    That night, Tory celebrates with her friend, Roscoe Travis (Jim Moody), and a few others at a restaurant. Chris's father, Rick, comes over to congratulate Tory, and Chris tells him to leave her there as she plans to walk home. Soon after, Chris suffers a fainting spell on her way out of the bathroom and Roscoe and Tory help her. Tory offers to drive Chris home, and in the car, Chris cries after congratulating Tory on her win. Instead of going home, Chris goes to Tory's room, where they smoke marijuana, arm-wrestle, and eventually make love.

    A few days later, Chris goes with Tory to San Luis Obispo, California, where Tory attends California Polytechnic State University. They run together, and Tory suggests that Chris train with Tory's coach, Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn). When she returns home, Chris asks her father if she can attend California Polytechnic in order to train with the team there. Rick asks what kind of scholarship Chris has been offered, and she admits that she has been offered nothing. Chris returns to San Luis Obispo, but Tingloff rejects Tory's suggestion that he coach Chris, agreeing only to let her work out with the team.

    Two months later, Tory bullies Tingloff into letting Chris race at practice, and though she falls off her blocks at the start, she catches up and finishes third.

    In a jump forward to 1978, Chris and Tory travel to Cali, Colombia, for the World Student Games. The day before the event, Chris gets food poisoning after eating a piece of local fruit. A medical student in the dorms gives Chris opium, and Tory stays up all night to nurse her. The next day, Tingloff chastises Tory for being too tired to perform, while Chris does well at hurdles. At a party after the competition, Tory sees Chris flirting with a male athlete and becomes jealous, but Chris refuses to leave when Tory tells her it's time to go.

    Back in San Luis Obispo, Tingloff happens upon Chris while she's stretching and tends to her when she gets a cramp. He offers her full tuition to the university for the following year, as long as she will work with him over the summer and change her event to pentathlon. Uncertain about competing against Tory, also a pentathlete, Chris protests but eventually agrees. Chris and Tingloff develop a rapport, and Tory takes notice.

    Later, Tingloff finds Tory coaching Chris in the weight room, and Tingloff pulls Chris aside to tell her that Tory may be sabotaging her. One day, while Chris practices high jump in preparation for the Pan American Games, Tory offers advice on Chris's approach. Chris is reluctant to go against the Tingloff's recommendations but follows Tory's advice and dislocates her knee in the process. When Tingloff finds out, he blames Tory, causing Chris to become suspicious of her as well. Tingloff takes Chris to his home and cares for her. When the phone rings, Chris tries to answer it, believing it is Tory, but Tingloff throws the phone across the room, accusing Chris of caring only about her girlfriend. He then kisses Chris, but she is offended by the advance.

    The next day, Chris meets Tory outside her apartment and promises to move out by the time Tory returns from the Pan American Games. Chris takes up swimming in order to strengthen her injured knee and meets a water polo player named Denny Stites (Kenny Moore). When Chris returns to practice, Tingloff says he doesn't want her on the field at the same time as Tory. Chris insists that she practices with everyone or not at all and leaves. On the way home, she spots a water polo match and stops to watch Denny play. She congratulates him afterwards and they go to lunch. Chris learns that Denny was an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, and she asks him how the victory felt. Denny catches Tory glancing over from another table at the restaurant, and Chris explains that she and Tory were roommates for three years. Later, at Chris's apartment, Denny finds a workout book Tory gave Chris and tells her he knows about their relationship but doesn't mind that she was romantically involved with a woman.

    In 1980, Chris, Tory, and other teammates compete at the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field. Because the United States has planned to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Soviet Union, the athletes are aware that they will not move onto the Olympics despite qualifying at the trials; as a result, the competition carries even more weight. On the first day of the pentathlon trials, Tory and Chris compete in hurdles, and Tory finishes second while Chris lags behind, losing points for hitting a hurdle. In the shot put event, Chris is fouled, putting her even further behind. Denny calls Chris over to the stands and encourages her, promising that she is not out of the competition. At the high jump, Chris clears a bar set higher than six feet and achieves a personal best.

    After a rain delay, the athletes compete in the long jump, and though it's Tory's best event, the wet track throws off her performance and Tory injures her knee. At the medical tent, Chris discovers that Tory's knee is not badly injured and encourages Tory to run in the 800 meter race, the last of the pentathlon events. With Chris in second place and Tory in fourth, they compete against each other in the final race. Chris leads for the most part but Tory surges forward at the last minute and wins. Chris runs past the finish line and into Tory's arms as the officials announce that they have both made the United States Olympic team. Chris places second and Tory third in the overall pentathlon. As they stand on the winner's rostrum in front of a cheering crowd, Tory tells Chris that Denny is kind of cute... for a man.

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